In the dream of Caribbean migration in the 1950s from the British colonies to the so-called Mother Country, four thousand miles away, the travelers always promised to return. As newcomers to Britain, they may have reconciled themselves to residing temporarily in one of its austere, monochrome, and forbidding inner cities, but they lived, really lived—as they had in the past and would in the future—in the Technicolor splendor of the Caribbean, in Kingston, Georgetown, or Port of Spain, brimming with flamboyant characters. Invariably, their five-year plan to stay and “work some money” (save and prosper) turned to ten years, then to fifteen. And finally, one day they woke from their self-imposed exile and decided to change the wallpaper, as they confessed to themselves what they had always suspected: they were destined to remain in Britain; there was no going back.
Such was Roy Heath’s nearly sixty-year sojourn in the Mother Country. In 1950, at the age of twenty-four, the civil servant arrived from Guyana (then called British Guiana). Back home, he’d dabbled in poetry, but, as he recorded in Émigrés, a recently unearthed, unpublished anthology, his exposure in London to impressive but unfamiliar European writers such as Arthur Rimbaud gave him cause to dig deeper with his pen:
Shortly after my arrival in England I began, once again, to write poetry, in the aftermath of my dismay at finding myself in an alien and alienating culture. But the discovery of Rimbaud proved too much for me and I tore up my dozen or so new poems, vowing that I would keep nothing until I could write like him. The thought that a youth of sixteen was capable of marching across such an extensive psychic landscape while at twenty-four I was still striving to establish a voice, gave me a much-needed jolt.
Decades later, having found his writer’s voice, Heath was lauded for several Guyana-based novels such as The Murderer. Like many of his pioneering generation, he stayed in Britain until his death in 2008; in his fiction, though, Heath returned again and again to Guyana. He hardly wrote about Britain; his focus was always his South American birthplace. “Trapped in my Guyanese skin,” willingly so, was how he saw himself. “When I write I put myself into a trance-like situation,” he explained. “Everything is almost happening in front of me. It is Guyana.”
This attention to birthplace, to the familiar, was also true of Heath’s Caribbean contemporaries V.S. Naipaul (in his early works Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas) and Derek Walcott (in myriad collections such as In a Green Night: Poems 1948–1960). Yet before their great work could be achieved, they had to rehearse and refine their craft.
In the 1940s and 1950s there were few publishing outlets in the Caribbean for new writing. But a Sunday-night radio program, Caribbean Voices, broadcast in the region though produced by the BBC World Service in London, offered hope and, importantly, money. When I visited Walcott in his St. Lucian home in 2009, he told me with great pleasure that when he first began sending his poems to the BBC in the 1950s, it paid a guinea per minute of broadcast, so he wrote extra sonnets for a sonnet sequence when he was short of money. When I spoke to the Trinidadian Naipaul, he was more concerned to convey the onerous task of writing when you come from a society that has had no tradition of locally produced literature. “It’s so hard to write where there has been no writing,” Naipaul moaned. Walcott had been more upbeat, reveling in the uniqueness of writing about a Caribbean island that, before him, had never really been written about; the virgin territory was a gift for a writer. Heath would have concurred. Before it ended in 1958, Caribbean Voices provided a lifeline for him, too, by commissioning and broadcasting a number of his short stories.
While the reputations of the Nobel laureates Walcott and Naipaul seem secure, Heath’s is uncertain. As well as short stories, he wrote plays, a memoir, and ten novels, including the Booker Prize–shortlisted The Shadow Bride (1988). But most of his work is now out of print, and when I recently conducted a survey among friends and associates steeped in Caribbean literature, few had heard of him. That looks set to change with the reissue of The Murderer, his second novel, which was enthusiastically reviewed when it was published in 1978 and went on to win the Guardian Fiction Prize for its fifty-two-year-old author.
The Murderer was preceded by A Man Come Home (1974), a “tenement yard” story of an impoverished Guyanese extended family looked down on by middle-class relatives boasting maids, gardeners, and cooks, notwithstanding the fact that the ability to employ servants was less a sign of wealth than of punishing poverty throughout Guyana, which drove down wages. A Man Come Home blended social realism, folklore, and myth, along the way exploring the toxicity of Guyana’s pigmentocracy—its “epidermal schema,” as Frantz Fanon called it—which relegated black people to the footstool of colonial society. As Heath’s younger son, Rohan, recalls, the book received scant attention, even from his wife: “She reported [that] she found it somewhat boring.” When her husband asked what kind of novel she’d prefer to read, she replied, “How about a murder story?” This origin of The Murderer may sound apocryphal, but Rohan remembers his father’s intense period of creativity: he emerged from his bedroom, still in his pajamas, for the necessary chore of eating. “The only other things that might coax him away from his writing were a game of chess or to play the piano.” Six weeks later the manuscript was finished.
The Murderer is a literary thriller that sheds light on the societal divisions and the undercurrent of political violence that beset Guyana in the 1950s and continued beyond independence in 1966. The short period during which it unfolds is never spelled out, but there are clues: the subtle allusions to the rift between the Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese populations, following cracks in the nonracial unity of the People’s Progressive Party, and the rising popularity of reggae, which later in the book further unbalances the mental equilibrium of its protagonist, Galton Flood, drowning out the sound of street life “with its insistent, pulsating multiple beats”—both suggest the turbulent 1970s.
Like the novel’s creator, Galton is something of an enigma. He is a timid, unremarkable man:
He himself dared not cultivate an affection lest it reared up and attacked him; nor could he express his dislike for a person for fear that the intensity of his disapproval might seem absurd, and with time he brushed aside every impulse to display any tender emotion….
The sustained humiliation at his mother’s hands, the inability to match his father and brother in any skill…often led him to indulge in fantasies of self-abasement.
The death of his parents within a year of each other galvanizes the nineteen-year-old to shed the social exoskeleton masking his shyness and to strike out from the capital, Georgetown, upstream on the Demerara River to the town of Linden, where he finds cheap lodgings with Mr. Burrowes, a cake shop and boardinghouse owner. Galton’s room is dark and decorated with ancient wallpaper; in an indication of his loneliness and anxiety, “an absurd idea filled his mind: he must somehow lick the wall bare of its flowers.” Then he proceeds to do just that.
Rescue from his unsettling thoughts and inexplicable actions, though, might well be around the corner or, more accurately, in the room next door. Within a month, Galton falls precipitously in love with Gemma, the landlord’s daughter, who mostly remains “unaware of the fires she was kindling in his body.” He, on the other hand, has to suppress his yearning and “violent inclination to smash down the door that connected his room to Gemma’s.”
Heath’s prose eschews physical descriptions. Instead we glean insights about appearance and personality from monologues and dialogues, first and foremost from the lips of the Walk-Man, a local gossip and street oracle who can judge another’s character merely from his walk. When Galton submits himself to inspection, parading in front of a raucous crowd at Mr. Burrowes’s cake shop, he’s disappointed by the Walk-Man’s prescient assessment: “Well…I’m not a magician. I’m a scientist. It’s obvious from your walk you hate to face your problems. You prefer to run away.” Galton is further vexed by the oracle’s assertion that “he had been offered the room [at his lodgings] as a bait to snare him.” Galton, the Walk-Man concludes, is being duped by Mr. Burrowes and Gemma into marriage.
For much of the story, Galton appears to be trapped in his middle-class Guyanese skin as he both flouts and struggles to retain a sense of the propriety expected of him. In that regard he mirrors the author and his family, whose manners and mores, Heath writes in his memoir Shadows Round the Moon (1990), were governed by snobbery:
Nothing pleased my mother more than to contrast her two grandmothers: the paternal, a Guyanese domestic…and the maternal, a Barbadian lady whose mouth “hardly moved when she spoke” and who delighted in showing her collections of parasols with bone handles to visitors….
The ancient domestic was invariably relegated to the low end of…[the] family table at meal time…. My mother’s maternal grandmother, with her fine manners, must have lamented the juxtaposition with a woman whose acquaintanceship with knives and forks was acquired through serving others!
The tension in Galton’s life lies between belonging and unbelonging; his attraction toward the so-called lower orders leads to both danger and opportunity. When The Murderer was first published, critics cited Dostoevsky as an obvious influence on it. Temperamentally, though, Galton seems closer to Meursault, the antihero of Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Galton, too, is listless, appears to have little capacity for empathy, and can’t quite grasp or anticipate his feelings.
The title implies a thriller, but halfway through the novel the crime has still not happened; the murderer is yet to be revealed. There’s no sense that the author is concerned to drive the narrative’s progress, and after a while you begin to wonder whether the murderer, Godot-like, will ever show up. Chapters end abruptly, with little impression of what is to follow, though this is true to life, you might argue, notwithstanding the risk that the novel might seem as directionless as the protagonist. Though the prose is, by turns, fluid and spare, a kind of languor pervades the story, which seems to infect Galton and all who come into contact with him. In his torpor he can be seen as a Guyanese everyman.
Nothing much appears to have changed since the dyspeptic Naipaul turned a critical eye on Guyanese society when he traveled through the country a decade earlier for his book The Middle Passage (1962). “The malarial sluggishness of the Guianese is known throughout the Caribbean,” he wrote. “I was told that it is dangerous to leave a Guianese in charge of a surveying station in the bush: surveyors will return to find the hut collapsed, instruments rusted, and the Guianese mad.”
Free from social and legal scrutiny, terrible things can happen in the interior. It’s as true of Guyana’s reality as it is for the novel. In the year of The Murderer’s publication, the American cult leader Jim Jones forced mass suicide on his hundreds of followers, who, along with their messiah, had retreated to Guyana’s wilderness and established a commune.
But the bush has its attractions for Galton. Guyana’s tiny population of 700,000 inhabits 83,000 square miles, an area the size of Great Britain. Civilization is to be found on the coastal strip; the bush, just tens of miles inland, is sparsely populated, with lawless frontier towns. Galton leaves Linden and flies on a small plane, with half a dozen other passengers, to the jungle, finding work, when it suits him, with a company mining for diamonds.
He arrives at a rainforest Eden, having left behind the vexing pathology of an airless and suffocating conurbation. In its place is an idyll unbound by the structures of everyday city life, where, in his time off, he can wander upriver in a frail canoe made from purple heart bark, making his way “effortlessly through the glass-smooth brown water.” Galton makes friends with an Amerindian, but mostly, in the company of his coworkers, even as he drinks raw rum to please them, he’s a bewildered outsider. Though he ends up living among them for more than a year, he picks up only a smattering of their coded language and scant understanding of their customs.
A middle-class man bent on upholding the social order would not seek and obtain, as Galton does, work first in the interior and later as a night watchman at a sawmill, thus reinforcing the Walk-Man’s judgment that he is in some way on the run. His counterintuitive actions rankle his brother, Selwyn, and after a while Galton struggles to explain the decisions even to himself:
At the time he had enjoyed the general consternation caused by his choice of work. Today, the perversity of his attitude was so manifest, he wondered how he could have deceived himself all this time.
If Galton is a master of anything, it’s self-deception. Middle-class Guyanese would never stoop to such low jobs; they are animated by fear of destitution and invoke the mantra “Death before dishonor.” Heath turns that world upside down in making apparent both their fears and those from his own childhood. In Shadows Round the Moon, he remembers the shame suffered by the family of a neighbor who lost his job when forced into early retirement from the civil service:
Their servants were dismissed and their four secondary school children had to be withdrawn from classes…. The father continued to frequent the homes of friends, but could no longer afford to entertain. Everyone admired him for his fortitude and…dignity. Late one night two fishermen about to take out their boat found him dead on the foreshore, wearing his serge suit and patent-leather shoes, dressed, as it were, for an important function.
Returning from the interior, Galton surrenders to the notion that the best way to resist temptation is to give in to it. Believing in the sanctity of marriage, “he had not soiled his body in pre-marital associations,” and he proposes to Gemma; she accepts. His new wife idolizes him and overlooks his prudishness, which extends to insisting that she keep on her underclothes in bed. But the marriage soon falters under the strain of the revelation on their wedding night that his bride is not a virgin, even though Gemma’s description of having sex with an “ugly, grey” middle-aged man, an acquaintance of her father’s who snuck into the house when he was away, is patently a survivor’s account of rape:
One day when it was so hot I opened all the windows and fell asleep on the bed. I dreamt that someone was taking off my skin, layer by layer…. When I woke up he was sitting on the bed…stroking my head. And…I was somehow too sleepy to resist…. After that afternoon I started to treat him like an animal…. He did anything I said just to have me again.
Galton is immediately sickened by the revelation and rejects her defense and accusation: “You should’ve come and taken me away!”
The dynamic between the couple shifts. Gemma is consumed by regret but also fury, especially when her husband unilaterally decides they’ll relocate to a squalid set of rooms in a slum area of town. It’s a twilight world where through the windows she observes “escapees from the police scaling the zinc [fences], furtive rubbish dumpers.” Worse still, the newlyweds’ neighbors, especially a mother and her adult son on the floor below, are mired in moral squalor. The elderly woman tries to seduce Galton, exposing her breast to him and whispering, “I can show you what you wife can never know.” Her son, who everyone knows is a police informer, is a sly, oleaginous man whose presence is like a breath of stale air.
Galton oscillates between attraction and disgust, between a noble sense of courting his better self and the lure of the neighbors’ repulsiveness. His association with them is marked by his letting go more fully of an old received idea of the primacy of class, and by an enjoyment of slumming—a coarsening of his character, perhaps, but also an evolving emotional intelligence in his acceptance of behavior, notably when intimate with his wife (“Afterwards, she did not put back on her pants and he did not mind”), which his former prudish self would have found reprehensible.
A rapprochement, then? Not quite. As the book progresses, the two most likely candidates for murderer and victim emerge as Galton and Gemma, respectively. Even before Galton starts to pay attention to neighborhood rumors that his wife has a lover, the narrator notes that “sometimes his heart was filled with such murderous hatred towards women he dreaded the long hours by his wife’s side.” Still, it comes as a surprise later when the deed is finally done, as Galton waits with Gemma for a launch at the wharf, following a trip to the village of Pouderoyen:
He stepped back to allow her to cross to his left side and as she hesitated he lifted the length of wood and brought it down on her head with a thud…. She stood, immobile, for a second, raised her hand to her head and swayed before the second blow felled her, face down in the water.
Only then do we appreciate that Galton’s intentions have been hidden from us; the murder was planned and expertly executed. He attaches a length of chain and four lead weights to the neck of his dying wife, until her body sinks. There is no sudden fear or remorse for his actions. Indeed, again echoing the protagonist of The Stranger’s disconnect between thought, feeling, and emotion, Galton is not panicked or immediately riven with any sense of guilt: “When it was all over he realised how hungry he was. The one meal he had eaten that day had not satisfied him.”
Heath did not have to look far for inspiration for his dark tale. In his youth and early adulthood he sought experiences in the kinds of rough parts of town that his family would have considered infra dig. In her obituary of Heath, Margaret Busby, the first publisher of The Murderer, described how he absconded to “play billiards down by the docks alongside labourers, stevedores and pimps.” More specifically, Heath drew on the tragic childhood memory of a favorite twenty-year-old maid, Norma, who became his friend and confidante: “I taught her long multiplication and she taught me how to make sorrel drink…from a plant she herself had grown in the yard.” Like Gemma, she was so beautiful that when she visited someone in the hospital, “the old men had to be restrained by the nurses from getting out of bed when she walked between the rows of patients.” Alas, Norma also inspired the jealousy of a violent lover, who murdered her by breaking her neck.
Keen readers will have observed that there were signposts along the way highlighting the delicacy of Galton’s mental health, which, now that he’s haunted by the lies he must tell to keep the truth from coming out, begins more speedily to unravel: “Of late he was dogged by the belief that he was in a bottle and was afraid that if he fell asleep someone would come and insert a cork in his mouth, leaving him imprisoned.”
In the vignettes, the descriptions of psychic disturbance that build to give a clear picture of Galton in free fall, and Mr. Burrowes’s and other relatives’ knowing acceptance of Galton’s guilt, it’s possible to detect a larger point that Heath is making with his confused protagonist as a stand-in for the pathology of Guyana. There are echoes of Fanon, who wrote in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) that among dispossessed populations, in purging troubled histories, “rival families decide to wipe the slate clean and forget the past.” Galton’s psychopathology mirrors the reluctance of formerly colonized and now independent people like the Guyanese to revisit and interrogate the trauma of their slave history, to expose feelings of guilt, shame, powerlessness, and complicity in their own degradation.
Heath’s ability in The Murderer, as in all of his novels, to render the interior lives of his characters is acute, but the author himself, who spurned interviews and publicity, remains opaque. Why he never wrote a novel set in Britain, where he resided for almost sixty years, is still a mystery. His older son, Roy Jr., believes the answer is simple: “My father never forgave the English for being colonists who had bled Guyana dry and taken all of its riches abroad.” He was determined not to expend his creative energy on the Mother Country, suggests his son, and besides, he had so much ground to cover with the wealth of material offered by Guyana.
Heath’s attachment to his birthplace deepened rather than diminished with time. Busby suggests that in some sense he never left Guyana, but it could also be argued that living in the grandeur of his imagination, far removed from the setting in which he found himself, he never fully arrived in Britain. Heath would have nodded in sad recognition of the unsettled migrant in the Trinidadian poet Roger Robinson’s poem “Month One”: “He kept his suitcase full of clothes in the cupboard to stop it from flying back by itself. He never actually unpacked.”
Britain had shaped Heath’s life in Guyana, but once he left, the prism through which he saw the world was reversed, writes Rohan:
Even as the snow fell and blanketed the ground during that first winter, [my father] described how he looked upon the denuded, London plane trees and saw in them the ghosts of the silk-cotton trees back home.
The landscape in The Murderer is as ably rendered as the characters, perhaps most memorably at the novel’s end, when Galton appears to be engulfed by the shadows of those silk-cotton trees: “The rain clouds that came in from the sea settled over the land like a forest of black umbrellas, shutting out the stars and the endless sky.”
The Murderer is a strange, luminous, and beguiling work by a writer with a mysterious and captivating Caribbean voice, who shied away from publicity and is now resurrected (as a result of the renewed interest in earlier black writers following the explosion of Black Lives Matter). Heath’s memoir conjures why in 1950, on the eve of departure to a foreign land where briefly he would become famous, he retained a lifelong love of Guyana:
And everything that seemed so ordinary then, the latticework overlooking Drysdale Street, my open window, the strains of an unfamiliar piece [of music] from the hall, would take on a magical significance in the years of exile. The book is now closed, bound with leathery inflorescences, bearing images of death and laughter…of autumn rains when rice is planted in flooded fields and memories fade against screens dividing rooms in long yards, and the rainbow spans the river.