Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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There are several interconnected themes in Kwaku, among them the struggle for individual expression in a communal society, the conflict between the desire to live in a fictive world and the desire to live honorably and loyally, and the pull of modernity in a traditional culture. Throughout the novel, characters find their lives deeply affected by traditional methods of healing, even when that healing proves ineffective. Kwaku’s relationship with Mr. Barzey develops in the context of the older man’s futile attempts to treat his graying hair yet ends up by centering on the modern art of photography. Later on, Kwaku makes his fortune as a traditional healer. He loses that fortune when the exigencies of the marketplace—the appearance of a rival healer—force him out of the business. Emphasizing the traditional nature of these characters’ lives is the language, sprinkled with Guyanese patois, Heath uses to narrate his story.

Against the backdrop of these traditional beliefs, Heath subtly invokes the economic difficulties created by the modern Guyanese state. Although the novel is not overtly political, there are references to the difficulties of living with an omnipresent ruling party in a country that seems to be on the verge of collapse. Kwaku’s own gradual collapse seems to mirror that of his country, which, like him, is gradually sinking under the weight of its debt. There are rumors that spare parts and cars will no longer be imported into the country. There are people whose traditional occupations have been destroyed by new regulations, such as Kwaku’s dead uncle, a cooper, who was put out of business by the introduction of the Pure Water Supply Scheme. A chance remark that Kwaku makes leads to his being paid a visit by two government officials, who sternly admonish him against disparaging the ruling party. Within this context, in which rumors abound, the truth is hard to determine, and the struggle for survival requires a great deal of ingenuity, storytelling becomes an important means of constructing an identity.

In Kwaku, truth is a commodity with fluctuating value. At times, lying can be a noble act, as when Mr. Barzey incriminates himself to protect Kwaku. At other times, lies provide the novel with a vehicle for comic relief. Kwaku is not the only liar in the book, but he is certainly the most active one. His lies are rarely designed to harm others; rather, they are his means of preserving hope in a world that sometimes offers him few opportunities for optimism. For example, when he first moves to New Amsterdam, he writes letters home describing his life in glowing terms, although he is in fact eking out an existence as a shoemaker’s apprentice. He sees his lies as “additions to the dull fare of day-to-day living, like casreep to pepper-pot, or coconut to cook-up rice.” Some of his lies get him into comic predicaments, such as his childhood boast of having witnessed an accident that he in fact never saw. That boast lands him in court to testify, a task that turns out to be time-consuming and troublesome. Although much of the novel’s comic force is derived from the contrast between Kwaku’s lies and the truth, by the novel’s end Kwaku’s lies have taken on tragic overtones. Rather than being jokes that readers can enjoy, Kwaku’s glowing accounts of his terrible existence come to seem both pathetic and brave: pathetic because transparent, and brave because imagination is ultimately the only means he has of exerting any kind of control over his life.

A reader’s paradoxical experience of Kwaku as being both a brave and a foolish figure is reinforced by the narrative distance Heath maintains from his character. Kwaku’s actions are often described at an almost sociological remove. Heath’s clinical descriptions of his character’s comic failures are interspersed with passages in which readers are allowed a sympathetic entrée into Kwaku’s mind and allowed to experience fully his pains and joys.