Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book 40, Antigua and Barbuda: "Mr Potter" by Jamaica Kincaid

Surprise! I finished this book just before I left Singapore, leaving me with just three hours' sleep before I took the plane to Indonesia. But I'm glad I pushed through: a book like this is too good to break into two sittings.

(Yeah, it's a lousy scan from elsewhere on the Net. When I get home I'll make a better one.)

Anyway! We're out slavery now, and into the realm of the contemporary in several senses of the word: Mr Potter himself lived from 1922 to 1992 and yes he really existed because he's Jamaica Kincaid's father; an absent father as his father was before him, scattering girl-children throughout the land but never even registering recognition when they stop him in the street and plead for money for textbooks. Not to say that he's cast as the prototypical bastard, though, because he's fundamentally a loser: no love in his life, no prospects, no wisdom: he didn't even know how to read.

(Also, he didn't leave Kincaid's mother. She left him, and stole all the money he'd saved up to buy a car of his own so he could set himself up with an independent business. I'd deep-six you too if you did that to me.)

Kincaid barely knew him, but she's created this creative non-fiction metanarrative based on this weird gap that lies between them, opening like a semi-traditional narrative on an average day in his working life around the time he met her mother, but spun only from the loose bits of oral history and conjecture she's gathered from family stories and interviews with folks on Antigua: the same details returned to over and over again, the way thoughts spin washing machine-style in your brain. Lovely prose, but how many new writers would get away with it?

Reads like a notebook, a rough draft of an unfinishable memoir more than the well-made novel, and that is the way it must be and it is good. It's like Virginia Woolf or Gertrude Stein in the Caribbean: entering and stepping back from/into other people's minds and her own: Mr Shoul, his Lebanese employer; Dr Weizenberger, the dentist he ferried back and forth in his car; his own mother who walked into the sea forever when he was five.

And of course the sorrow/angst/emptiness of being cut off from this logical part of your heritage: the same but different way so many of us Singaporeans are cut off from our own.

Didn't expect quite this from the author of the much more traditional (but still engagingly alienating) novel Lucy. Of course, that's about coming to America: coming home is always more bizarre.

And what fun not to be there for a while!

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

Representative quote:
And Mr Potter died, so simple a thing, he died and will never be heard from again, except through me, for I can read and I can write my own name, which includes his name also, Elaine Cynthia Potter, and like him and his own father before him, I have a line drawn through me, a line has been drawn through me.

Next book:
E A Markham's The Three Suitors of Fred Belair, from Montserrat.

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