REVIEW OF RACING WITH THE RAIN by Frank Birbalsingh
Professor Emeritus, English Literature, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Racing With The Rainis the first novel of Guyanese born Ken Puddicombe who, since 1971, has lived in Canada where he works as an accountant. Racing offers a fictional version of political events during a turbulent period, from the 1960s to the 1980s, in the history of Guyana, formerly British Guiana. The novel is a roman a clef, one in which people and events may be identified through fictional names assigned to particular organizations, individuals or places, for example, “Liberty House” for actual Freedom House, “Arawak Hotel” for Carib Hotel, “Kingsley” for Sydney King, and “Jack Hill” for Kelshall.
The narrator Carl Dias is a Guyanese who lived through events in the novel before coming to Canada, and settling in Toronto where we first see him, in 1980, sixteen years after he left Guyana. He is Senior Economist at the Canadian Business Bank, and is separated from his Russian/Cuban partner Natasha and their two children -Alexei and Irina who play no active part in the novel. Carl receives news of the death of his father Augusto in Guyana, and his narrative consists of an account of is visit to Guyana to attend the funeral, except that chapters describing his visit are interspersed between reflections on his family or friends, and documentation of Guyana’s political history between the 1960s and the 1980s.
The narrator’s surname betrays his origin in a Portuguese community, a Guyanese minority group who were brought to Guyana as indentured workers, from Madeira, during the mid-nineteenth century. The group have evidently one well since Carl’s father enjoys the status of a successful Georgetown business man, influential among the Conservatives [an actual political party - United Force - who members are chiefly Portuguese and rich Indian-Guyanese] all vigorous supporters of free enterprise and sworn enemies of the Reform Party [actual People’s Progressive Party which is supported mainly by Indian-Guyanese] and regarded as Marxist/Leninist or Communist. A third party, the Republican Party [actual People’s National Congress who membership is largely African-Guyanese and ostensibly Marxist], forms a strategic coalition with the Conservatives despite deep ideological differences, mainly because coalition brings blessing of the Kennedy administration in the US, and practical help from the C.I.A. and American Labour Unions who share a common anti-communist aim of depriving the Reform Part of power gained [by democratic means] from an electorate that is largely Indian-Guyanese.
The two strands of the novel’s plot consisting of action from the period of Carl’s visit in 1980 and from the tumultuous period of the 1960s with strikes, riots and other ructions allow the reader to see both the collusion necessary to replace the Reform Party regime with one that is Republican, and the consequences of Republican rule, by 1980, when it had produced widespread food shortages, disorder, increased crime, corruption, repression and dictatorship that left Georgetown, once known as “the Garden City of the Caribbean” in mere shambles. “Signs of decay everywhere. Trenches were filled with stagnant water and garbage and tall reeds lined the banks. Buildings were weather beaten. Streets were perforated with potholes and sidewalks rutted and cracked.”
Puddicombe is both diligent and skilful in documenting the beauty of Guyana’s tropical vegetation, and the flavour and idiom of local speech and public banter that are part and parcel of everyday life, social habits and customs observed, for example, in a typical scene outside a cinema in Georgetown: “The aroma of black pudding, boiled corn and channa, ripe tamarind, freshly baked cassava pone drifted across to Carl as an old woman dispensed her snacks from a tray perched on top of a wooden soft drink crate.” The sentence captures both the simple, improvised quality of the old woman’s business, and the mouth-watering appeal and natural warmth of her service. As for tropical rain, it gives the novel its title when, as boys, the narrator and his friends hear the roll of thunder, precursor to rain, and in the middle of their game, grab their marbles trying “to outrun the rain before the eruption.”
But the politics of the novel and its characters are central. In such a maelstrom of political opinions and loyalties, objectivity is impossible, and Carl’s entire narrative including his acceptance of a Reform Party scholarship to study in communist Cuba declare his moderate, left-of-centre political sympathies, quite unlike the fanaticism of his father who believed that: “They [caterpillars] were like Communists, preying on people and taking everything away until the cupboard was bare.” Augusto Dias also boasted: “I’m not abandoning it [Guyana] to a Communist take over. They’re going to have to take me out of here in a pine box.” Augusto reflects the real fanaticism that caused destruction, looting and mayhem in the 1960s. It turns out he may even have supported a terrorist group -the X13. More than that, Carl discovers his half-brother Earl Singh and realises Augusto was not as upright as he claimed. Yet Augusto’s portrait is a minor masterpiece.
In the end, Carl is suspected of membership in a Toronto based organization -Restoration of Democracy in Guyana- which is believed to plan the overthrow of the Republican Party regime in Guyana. Carl did attend one meeting of the group in Toronto, and although he did not join, the friend who invited him entered his name as a member, and this is now used by Guyanese security forces to capture him and accuse of him of being a spy. Carl is trapped and helpless, in grave danger of never seeing his family again. Suspense builds as he is interrogated and tempted by intrigue and desperation. One of his interrogators, however, is a neighbour who, as a delinquent boy was helped by Augusto, and now comes to Carl’s rescue. Carl is then able to make amends for his half-brother Earl before he leaves. Whatever else it may be, Racing is an act of filial piety -one man’s loving homage to his father, warts and all.