Woo! The penultimate book on the Man Asian Prize shortlist. I don’t know when my copy of Rebirth will arrive, so normal programming will resume soon. Though I should still really get around to writing about The Colonel, because if I don’t, my OCD won’t approve of my not having done the entire longlist. Sly Company interests me for a number of reasons – the main one being the fact that this is the only book on the shortlist (and longlist) not set within Asia. It’s nice to see Asian literature looking outside its own borders.
A young Indian man packs up his life as a cricket journalist in India, and moves to Guyana, hoping to find something more in his life. As he slowly acclimatises to the both the weather and the markedly different Caribbean way of life, he discovers that this equatorial paradise is more dangerous and disturbing than he originally envisioned.
So, the first 50 pages of this did nothing for me. I was sitting there thinking it was going to be a long slog. And I couldn’t tell you what it was about this section that put me off so. Perhaps it was simply that the language and style employed by Bhattacharya is a unique reading experience, and takes some getting used to. Suffice it to say, he does things to the English language I didn’t think possible, and he manages to catch the patois of Guyana in a surprisingly non-patronising way. It takes skill to do something like that.
One learns an awful lot about Guyana in this novel, and a lot of it is presented as slabs of history. This is particularly evident at the beginning of the second section, where Bhattacharya launches into his own history of the place, which is fine, and informative, but maybe could have been more evenly spaced throughout the rest of the piece, instead of ending up as some kind of infodump. But these asides are fascinating, and it is clear he has done his homework on this place. Of particular interest to me was the slow realisation of the difference between the two groups of ethnic Indians – those born and raised in India, like our narrator, and the diaspora in Guyana, who have moulded Indian culture to their own experience. If anything, I had hoped he would push this angle a little further.
There is a sense of unease throughout the novel, and as the narrator moves from place to place, dealing with circumstances he no doubt never imagined finding himself involved in, one cannot help but feel the rawness and – I hesitate to say “danger” – of living in a developing country. There is a particularly brutal sequence in which the narrator joins a local man looking for gold in the rainforest for several days, and when a deal goes horribly wrong, we are witness to a shocking scene of revenge. This is pretty much par for the course here – to say this novel is plot heavy would be a vast overstatement. We are instead treated to glimpses of people’s lives, apparently based on the author’s own experiences living in Guyana, similar to our unnamed narrator.
I have only a few bones to pick. The first is that the narrator is a bit of a nothing character in and of himself – he remains something of a passive observer, an outsider in this society, and I never really warmed to him as a person. Written in the first person, this is both problematic, and understandable. He is free to simply recount his observations to us, the reader, in order for us to make up our own minds about the events that take place. And have no fear, almost all of them are morally ambiguous enough to leave you wondering if anyone is doing the right thing, or if everyone is simply going along with the flow, happy to not upset the careful equilibrium of a country brimming with racial tension.
The ending degenerates somewhat, and I’m not sure how I feel about the “twist” near the closing pages. The last section is a definite move from the previous, but in some ways, this is the strength of the novel. Rather than telling one tale, Bhattacharya gives us something of a survey of Guyana, giving us a taste of many of the different ways of life that are contained within, and sometimes without, the borders of this tiny nation.
This is assuredly a strong, assured debut novel. I am particularly keen on the idea of an author from a culture with which we usually associate postcolonial literature in which it is the oppressed dealing with the diaspora of said culture, and dealing with an even less developed country. And while this does feature, it is the evocation of a place, and of the sense of immediacy, that Bhattacharya creates in this novel that makes me understand why The Sly Company of People Who Care is on the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 shortlist. Check it out.