I was thinking of the
sand, and of Wilson Harris.
Difficult, complex Guyana! I thought. Prehistorically-moulded. Metaphysically-inspiring. Nihilistic. Ridicule-making. Anarchic Guyana!....
This is a kind of country
of the mind, John said. Its a mentally-held landscape of very real
people, an outsized Nature, a surrealistic history, overwhelming
contemporary events, and an abundance of dreams. A mental Coast, a
Andrew Salkey, Georgetown
In February 2005, I went to Guyana for the first time. I stayed there
just a few weeks, but returned home puzzled and disturbed by the place,
and even a little obsessed. I didnt know why.
It was a few anxious, indecisive months before I realised I wanted to
write about Guyana, and a few more before I began to see how.
In the Land Rover, driving through the forest between 58 Miles and
Kurupukari, down the long tunnel of trees, I tried to imagine the
course of the road as though the land were laid before me like a map. I
imagined the road emerging from the forest near mountains I had yet to
see. I imagined it winding round the Pakaraima foothills and plunging
into the Takutu River near Lethem. The Land Rover bucked unceasingly,
and the passengers had grown accustomed to being thrown from one side
of the cabin to the other with the rhythm of a rolling ship. But I
managed to slide my notebook out of my bag, and wrote a sentence from
Wilson Harris at the top of a fresh page: The map of the savannahs was a dream.
In my head I had the image of a hill: black rock and pebbly red earth,
crackling tufts of dry grass, a hot blue sky with some milk swirled in,
and my face and arms crusted with sweat and dust.
Why Guyana? I seem to have a different answer almost every time someone
asks. The most truthful answer is: I dont know yet, but I hope I will
by the time I finish this book.
What kind of book? A long prose narrative. A travel book, for want of
an equally concise word. Pico Iyer suggests that a travel
book is one that its author would never think of as a travel book; to
him, it is history or anthropology, memoir or even camouflage fiction.
Yes, thats what Im writing, all of the above.
It starts with my arrival in Georgetown that February afternoon,
follows me around the city, then south through the forest to the
Rupununi Savannah and the border with Brazil, and beyond. It follows me
to the summit of Mt. Roraima, up the Essequibo to Bartica and
Kyk-over-Al, and east to the green fields of Berbice.
The book also investigates how previous writers have engaged in
defining Guyanas mentally-held landscape. How is physical geography
translated into literary geography? What gets lost or added in
Im particularly interested in a few key travellers accounts, written
over a period of a century and a half: Charles Watertons Wanderings in
South America (1825), the mid-nineteenth-century journals
and travelogues of Robert and Richard Schomburgk, Evelyn Waughs Ninety-two Days (1934), Michael
Swans The Marches of El Dorado
(1958), V.S. Naipauls The Middle
Passage (1962), Andrew Salkeys Georgetown Journal (1972). Each of
these narrativesby three Englishmen, two Germans, a Trinidadian, and a
Jamaican, ranging from imperialist adventure story to concerned
cultural inquiryimagines a version of Guyana I have tried to see
through and to see past in my own travels.
Ive explored distinct areas of Guyanas physical and human landscape
using these precursor narratives as maps, tracing the routes they
describe, comparing their observations with my own, trying to discern
their distortions; while remembering that the map of my narrative
inevitably records my own distortions.
Imaginary Roads surveys four contiguous thematic landscapes, which
you might think of as chapters:
the Guyana of forest, mountain, river; wilderness, distance,
vastness; Kaieteur and Roraima; the notion of a remote interior,
pristine, abundant, but also threatening. What place does this sense of
scale have in the story of Guyana?
the Guyana of the Rupununi, a fragment of the Great Savannah that
stretches across Venezuela and Brazil; the continental Guyana that
tried, in the Rupununi Uprising of 1968, to declare separation from the
coastlanders. Where in Guyana does the Caribbean end and South
Amerindian Guyana: the ancient, timeless heritage that the modern
state lays claim to; that many post-Independence artists and writers
have co-opted. What is the real relationship of Guyanas indigenous
people to the contemporary nation?
the dark, sinister Guyana of political repressions and
assassinations, riots and massacres; where postcolonial anxieties
rapidly deteriorated into despair; a country depopulated by mass
emigration. How has this ongoing, long-term crisis influenced and been
portrayed in the literature of Guyana?
And arching over them all is the question of how a non-fictional
literary narrative contributes to the commonly held story of a place,
the cultural narrative accepted as truth.
You might say: one travels because one is bored. You might say: one
travels because one is interested. Those might be two ways of saying
the same thing: that one travels because one is restless, afraid of
boredom, of the moral failing of not paying enough attention to the
world. Pay attention may be
the supreme lesson literature and art try to teach us; but no matter
how devotedly we attend to the space and people and climate around us,
many of us need a sporadic recalibration of the senses and the
sensibilities, or else we are numbed and blunted by the routine of
waking, washing, eating, walking, sitting, standing, replying,
undressing, sleeping; by tables to be laid and cleared, doors to be
opened and closed, books to be piled and shirts to be buttoned. Away
from home and belongings and certainties and neighbours, in strange
landscapes, under strange weather, among strangers, we may find our
curiosity refreshed, we may find some freedom from habits of worry.
One travels to be reminded of the strangeness of the world. One travels
to discover that nothing in the world is truly strange, or everything
Nothing in Guyana was truly strange, but everything was. Some things
were familiar as if from dreams; I felt I knew them, but couldnt say
from where. Familiar like childhood memories that may have come from
stories, from books, from daydreams, not from everyday experience.
I still dont know why, but I hope I will.
Ive posted some fragments from early drafts of Imaginary Roads on my
He was not a good traveller....
He was travelling to a place called Guyana....
The city was called Georgetown....
To stay at the Club, one needed the recommendation of a member....
Late one afternoon, he walked up to the Sea Wall....
It was impossible to not be surprised by the physical graciousness of the city....
He was sitting in the lounge of the Georgetown Club with another of the guests....
He waited an hour in the lounge for a cup of coffee....
Its ten years or more since I heard this story from B....
Inevitably, he began to dream of rivers....
Another false start
Some photos: from a trip to Guyana in July and
August 2005; from an expedition through
Venezuela to Mt. Roraima in March and April 2007.
Also: my A.J. Seymour webpage a review of Prehistoric
Guiana, by Denis
Williams, from the August 2005 Caribbean Review of Books a short account of a trip to
Bartica and Kyk-over-Al, from the March/April Caribbean Beat.