Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The novels of The Kaywana Trilogy collectively represent Mittelholzer’s most distinguished achievement in a writing career which produced twenty-five books, twenty-three of which are novels. These novels are set in various parts of the West Indies as well as in British Guiana. Some are set in England, to which Mittelholzer immigrated in 1950, and where he died by suicide in 1965.

The reconstruction of three and a half centuries of any nation’s history would be a daunting task for most writers. For Mittelholzer, it was even more daunting because there were very few sources on the history of British Guiana when he was writing. His main source was J. R. Rodway’s three-volume History of British Guiana (1891). It is a measure of Mittelholzer’s distinguished achievement as a novelist that, out of such meager resources, he was able to incorporate innumerable characters and incidents, changes of location (within British Guiana), and different historical periods into a smoothly flowing, coherent narrative that both dramatizes history and provides entertaining action. As fictionalized history containing a rich variety of dramatic incidents, colorful or even perverse characters, and a narrative of most palatable fluency, the Kaywana novels constitute a rare and inspired feat of imaginative reconstruction. Since he had no local literary tradition on which he could rely for models or techniques, Mittelholzer’s achievement is essentially that of a pioneer, blessed with a brilliant and fertile imagination, versatile writing skills, and prodigious energy.

Mittelholzer was the first novelist in the region of the English-speaking Caribbean to produce so many novels. He was also the first novelist to explore the history of his homeland in such scope and depth. Most important, Mittelholzer was the first novelist from the English-speaking Caribbean to consider seriously such universal themes as the nature of political organization and sexual behavior. If The Kaywana Trilogy reveals some imbalance in the presentation of these themes by focusing on their more lurid aspects, it is partly the result of Mittelholzer’s having to supplement the dearth of historical sources with the prodigal inventions of a romantic imagination. In the process, he has also created three novels which are unsurpassed in West Indian literature for their combination of vividly reconstructed history with vigorously romantic action.