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Kwaku Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Kwaku focuses on the life of its protagonist, who, despite the fact that he is orphaned, bowlegged, and seemingly incapable of staying out of trouble, manages to rise from being a humble shoemaker in C village to becoming a famous healer in New Amsterdam, a large Guyanese city. A series of events, including an ill-advised promise he makes, plunges him and his family into poverty, alcoholism, and violence.

Even when he is a child, Kwaku’s desires for glory and fame lead him into a series of comic misadventures. He is not malicious: “The only flaw in himself was a weakness for letting his tongue run away with him.” The boasts he makes and the stories he invents render him an outsider in his own village, where he is generally viewed as being unreliable. The low opinion that others generally hold of him does not prevent him from having high expectations for himself, however, so that when he wishes to marry, he feels entitled to give his matchmaking uncle a long list of specifications for his bride, including profession, height, degree of literacy, and even style of table manners.

His arranged marriage to Gwendoline, a woman from far outside the village who is unaware of his bad reputation, transforms Kwaku into a reliable member of the community. He works hard as a shoemaker’s apprentice, and as his family grows, he stays devoted to his wife. When his vanity drives him to seek the assistance of his next-door neighbor, the one-toothed Mr. Barzey, in ridding himself of gray hairs, he begins to develop artistic yearnings. Mr. Barzey’s photographs offer Kwaku a window into a larger world, and he becomes “lost in a dream of far-away places.”

Kwaku’s tenuous hold on respectability, and his livelihood itself, is threatened when a plague of locusts attacks C village and destroys the coconut palms on which many of the villagers depend, directly or indirectly. The poverty that all but the government employees suffer affects his family, forcing him to send two of his children away to be cared for by relatives. An offer of help from Blossom Dean, Kwaku’s lifelong friend, inflames Gwendoline’s jealousy. The situation is worsened when Kwaku manages to breach the village conservancy and flood the cultivated fields. Although he is given temporary asylum by Blossom and her boyfriend Wilfred, he is eventually captured by the police, only to be released when Mr. Barzey confesses to the crime. The hunger of his children convinces Kwaku that it is time for him to seek his fortunes in the wider world.

Upon his arrival in New Amsterdam, Kwaku, after some initial difficulty, manages to apprentice himself to a shoemaker. After curing a neighbor’s heart condition with garlic, he acquires a reputation as a healer and is able for the first time in his life to dress well, to send ample money home to his family, and to rise in the world. His fame as a healer grows and, with it, “some unquenchable urge to be rich.” Although he recognizes that this is not natural to him, he is driven by it. When he returns to C village for a visit, “the man who could not keep his mouth shut” once again gets himself into trouble with his tongue. His promise to a local fisherman that he can get his wayward daughter to return through his healing powers goes unfulfilled. In revenge, the fisherman places an obeah curse on Gwendoline to strike her blind. As Kwaku works in New Amsterdam to support his family for the next two years, she gradually loses control over her family. In order to reestablish order, Kwaku returns to his village, but he is unable to find any clients for his healing practice. By the time he finally returns to New Amsterdam with his family, he finds that he has been supplanted by another healer. He and his family gradually slip into poverty. At the close of the book, he and his family have been evicted from their home and are once again living with the shoemaker to whom he was apprenticed during his early days in the city. His twins have become brutal and wild, to the point where they beat up their father. Gwendoline has become an alcoholic, and Kwaku is reduced to digging through trash cans to find scraps to sell for pig fodder. Philomena, his favorite daughter, has given birth to an illegitimate child, and his sons are spending all of their time in a Rastafarian commune. The novel ends as Kwaku dances in a rum shop for pennies to buy cheap liquor and Gwendoline dreams of the village in which she was reared.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bold, Alan. “The Good Shoemaker Schweik.” The Times Literary Supplement, November 12, 1982, 1243. Views Kwaku as belonging to the comic tradition of Czech writer Jaroslav Haek’s The Good Soldier Schweik (1921-1923), the protagonist of which is also a “village idiot” who survives through creative stupidity.

Booklist. Review of Kwaku: Or, The Man Who Could Not Keep His Mouth Shut, by Roy A. K. Heath. 80 (October 1, 1983): 223. Sees Kwaku, despite its comic surface, as a tragic metaphor for the hopelessness and desperation of contemporary Guyanese life.

Larson, Charles R. “Metamorphoses and Other Shenanigans.” The New York Times Book Review 89 (January 15, 1984): 11. Praises Heath’s vivid portrayal of Guyanese village life, his sense of the irreverent, and his innovative language as well as the way he, in making a sudden shift from a comic to a tragic tone, challenges reader expectations that Kwaku will remain a lovable buffoon.

McWatt, Mark A. “Tragic Irony—The Hero as Victim: Three Novels of Roy A. K. Heath.” In Critical Issues in West Indian Literature, edited by Erika Smilowitz and Roberta Q. Knowles. Parkersburg, Iowa: Caribbean Books, 1984. Provides a general discussion of Heath’s literary technique, which McWatt identifies as a distancing from the terrible events he narrates. Sees this conjunction of the tragic and the ironic, and the position in which Heath’s characters are thus placed, as an important commentary on the condition of West Indian people.

McWatt, Mark A. “Wives and Other Victims: Women in the Novels of Roy A. K. Heath.” In Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990. Views all Roy Heath characters as victims of larger forces, with women being especially oppressed by their circumstances. Sees the domestic settings of Heath’s novels functioning as re-creations of the slavery under which previous generations of Guyanese were forced to exist.