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Berbice Crossing

by Cyril Dabydeen

Nine of the 11 stories in Cyril Dabydeen’s third collection, Berbice Crossing, are set in rural Guyana, and many of the characters dream, often of escape: Devan, in “The Rastafarian,” envisions pairing up with his new Rasta acquaintance Herbie, and proclaiming “THE ANCIENT HINDU-RASTAFARIAN-INDIA-AFRICA RELIGION”; Joe, in “Canary Joe,” part trickster/part shaman, offers advice to villagers by interpreting the speech of birds; Dead, in “A Might Vision,” a sugar cane-cutter, although “only five-foot six” and “skinny,” dreams, while lifting weights, of being Mr. Universe; Snakie, the “stray-catcher” in “Losers,” imagines winning the respect of his wife and the local police sergeant by capturing a jaguar; Ben-Jamel, the politician in “The Albino,” plans transcending the country’s African/East Indian division by running an albino candidate in the next election.

The Berbice is the name of both a territory and a large river in Guyana. In the title story, the narrator, now in Canada, receives an “air-mailed copy of The Berbice Times” announcing a race “across the Berbice – which was wider than Lake Ontario.” The story is full of images of dream and escape: the narrator’s childhood memories are mostly dreams of departure; an actual return home is intercut with seemingly imagined memories of swimming the Berbice and snapshots of the emigrant experience. Crossing the Berbice becomes a metaphor for emigration, for heading “somewhere far from Guyana.” The story successfully creates the dislocation felt by the traveller, but the impressionistic narrative technique makes it difficult for the reader to ascertain, as Northrop Frye put it, “Where is here?”

Indeed, taken as a whole, the collection often has the strange, locationless logic of a dream, even while it contains the strong evocations of specific incidents. I think this is because much more of the book’s action takes place in the various protagonists’ heads than between characters in the stories, leading to a curious lack of engagement, to artificiality rather than artifice.