(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...

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(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.