A glimpse into Ja­maican life

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Kei Miller Wei­den­feld and Ni­col­son £12.99 Re­view by Nick Ma­jor

IN THE third part of Kei Miller’s Augustown an et­y­mo­log­i­cal aside ex­plains the Ja­maican di­alect word ‘au­to­claps’. At the end of this gen­tle les­son, the nar­ra­tor says: “it’s funny, isn’t it, this whole process – how var­i­ous di­alects bleed into each other; how every lan­guage is a grave­yard of lan­guages, how every lan­guage is a store­house of his­tory”. Like Miller’s 2014 For­ward Prize-win­ning po­etry col­lec­tion, The Car­tog­ra­pher Tries to Map his Way to Zion, this tragi-comic third novel ex­plores how his­tory is com­posed of dif­fer­ent sto­ries wrestling for le­git­i­macy. But more than that, it shows the im­por­tance of who tells th­ese sto­ries and how they are told.

Augustown is based on a place of the same name in the hills of St An­drew, Ja­maica. The novel be­gins in the “blue and cloud­less” Caribbean sky. The nar­ra­tor is look­ing down at the town on the 11th April 1982. A tough old blind grand­mother called Ma Taffy is sit­ting on her veran­dah. She has lived through enough tur­moil to know how to sep­a­rate the triv­ial from the se­ri­ous. So when she hears her grand­son, Kaia, sob­bing as he gets home from school she senses that his tears are not of the croc­o­dile type. But in­stead of ask­ing what is wrong, she asks him if he knows about the ‘fly­ing preacher­man’. When he says no, she is ashamed of her­self: “Every lickle yute from Augustown ought to know the story of the fly­ing preacher­man.”

The life of Alexan­der Bed­ward un­der­pins the emo­tional and po­lit­i­cal strug­gles in the novel. In the early 20th century this “cowherder, for­mer gam­bler and adul­terer” gave him­self over to fast­ing and pray­ing. Af­ter years of re­pen­tance he be­came the “great­est preacher­man in Ja­maica. Bed­wardism be­came one of the most im­por­tant re­li­gion across the is­land.” His preach­ing was the foun­da­tion of The Promised Key, “widely re­garded as the first book of Rasta­fari…when th­ese dread­locked men and women, when th­ese chil­dren of Zion, when th­ese smok­ers of weed and th­ese singers of reggae, when they chant songs such as, ‘If I had the wings of a dove’, or ‘I’ll fly away to Zion’, th­ese songs hold within them the mem­ory of Bed­ward.”

Bed­ward’s lib­er­a­tion the­ol­ogy gave hope to the op­pressed black folk on the is­land. Ma Taffy re­calls that in 1920, lit­er­ally moved by the power of the spirit, Bed­ward started to lev­i­tate. The white up­per-classes seized their op­por­tu­nity. They de­nounced him as men­tally un­sta­ble and crushed the new spirit of free­dom he helped to foster.

In 1982, Ma Taffy fears a sim­i­lar cat­a­clysm, or ‘au­to­claps’, is about to erupt when she dis­cov­ers that Kaia’s dread­locks have been cut off by his school teacher, Mr Saint-Josephs. The Nazirite vow ‘no blade shall ever touch my head’ rings out in her mind and his­tory comes storm­ing back in to the present.

Augustown is a rag­bag of lives re­mem­bered and told for the first time. Be­fore the ‘au­to­claps’ ar­rives, we are given a grand tour, from the school­teacher to Kaia’s mother, Gina, and her strange re­la­tion­ship with a white up­per-class head teacher, Mrs Gar­rick. Th­ese lives dove­tail, and the dif­fer­ent racial and class di­vi­sions be­come por­ous. Early on in the novel Miller doesn’t quite strike the right chord with his prose, and oc­ca­sion­ally the satiric tone seems wooden and forced. But in the last third he re­ally hits his stride. The prose bounces along with the rhythms of the ev­ery­day life in Augustown and the pleas­ing sound of Ja­maican pa­tois.

The novel self-con­sciously runs in a tra­di­tion of nar­ra­tives that high­light the sto­ries of black op­pres­sion fa­mil­iar to read­ers of Toni Mor­ri­son or Ralph El­li­son. Miller is an in­tel­li­gent hu­morist. He ex­cels at us­ing nov­el­is­tic form to im­bue his work with an emo­tional weight. Whilst read­ing, I spent a good while try­ing to un­der­stand who was telling the story of Augustown and its in­hab­i­tants. The nar­ra­tor has such a unique voice, per­sonal yet play­fully om­ni­scient. When I re­alised who was telling the tale, it emerged as a great and poignant nar­ra­tive trick. Augustown is a book of many voices. But some of the most in­ter­est­ing are the voices of those sto­ry­tellers who speak to the imag­i­na­tion of the Rasta­far­ian peo­ple.

The novel runs in the tra­di­tion of Toni Mor­ri­son

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