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Having the Last Laugh

Mr. Potter

by Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 195 pp., $20.00

In A Small Place (1988), her memoir of the island of Antigua where she was born in 1949, Jamaica Kincaid gives a tour of the targets of her cultural bitterness and colonial resentments. In so doing, she may be telling us where the high, aggressive finish of her prose style stems from. She grew up among the powerless and was determined not to see herself that way. The sugar plantations were long gone and history was looking the other way by the time she came along. Yet her tone suggests that she works under the suspicion that her unyielding voice could be extinguished at any time, simply because, according to the history of where she grew up, she was never meant to have this, a survivor’s voice.

Kincaid also writes in A Small Place that people who share a common history of humiliation and enslavement are taught to mistrust one another, even as children. This condition is not a mystery, she says, because the people they should mistrust are completely beyond their influence. The people beyond their influence are white people, and black people, at least on Antigua, who remain behind, imprisoned by the sea, inflict psychological damage on one another. In Kincaid’s defiantly clear-voiced yet opaque novels, the historical has repercussions on the personal. Often, usually without their knowing it, her characters are shaped already by forces that have been long at work. Sometimes there is no hope for her characters; they have to go on being who they are. Sometimes they can break the cycle, which means repudiation, getting out of that jurisdiction where damage passes from generation to generation.

In Annie John (1985), a young woman’s coming-of-age story set on Antigua, Kincaid is impatient with home, the familial past, the black background. The novel tells us about one sort of character who can break away: the girl who knows early on that she cannot flourish where she is, under those backwater circumstances. It is their life or hers; either a life where girls of child-rearing age do that too soon and exhaustively or a life that she invents, thereby rescuing and vindicating her intelligence. The voice is ruthlessly forthright, as if to say that to break the cycle first requires a freak event, the development of the articulate, alienated consciousness that will humble itself only to the possessor’s will, no one else’s. She, the mature writer, approves of Annie John’s conviction that home is holding her back. Kincaid’s first-person narrator certainly doesn’t take herself to task for her coldness toward her family, which makes for a kind of daring in contemporary black literature.

One of Kincaid’s young women manages to catch up with the very people who thought themselves beyond the influence of someone like her. In Lucy (1990), the Caribbean-born narrator comes to a city much like New York to work as an au pair for a white couple. Her employers irk her when they compare their feelings about their lives to hers. She makes it clear to them that she is only talking about herself when she speaks. She is not ungratified to see people suffer emotionally who have so much, because she is accustomed to the suffering of people who do not have enough. Perhaps Kincaid gave her next novel its title, The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), in order to mock discussion of the autobiographical in her novels. Though set on the island of Dominica, where Kincaid’s mother comes from, there are no relationships between mothers and daughters in this bleak work. “Nurturing” is nowhere to be found. Instead, there is a self-induced abortion and the death of a mother in childbirth.

In My Brother (1997), a memoir of her brother’s death from AIDS, Kincaid, a renowned garden writer, admires her mother’s gift with plants and then reflects on her mother’s maternal temperament:

My mother loves her children, I want to say, in her way! And that is very true, she loves us in her way. It is her way…. It has never occurred to her that her way of loving us might have served her better than it served us. And why should it? Perhaps all love is self-serving. I do not know, I do not know. She loves and understands us when we are weak and helpless and need her. My own powerful memories of her revolve around her bathing and feeding me. When I was a very small child and my nose would become clogged up with mucus, the result of a cold, she would place her mouth over my nose and draw the mucus into her own mouth and then spit it out; when I was a very small child and did not like to eat food, complaining that chewing was tiring, she would chew my food in her own mouth and, after it was properly softened, place it in mine. Her love for her children when they are children is spectacular, unequaled I am sure in the history of a mother’s love. It is when her children are trying to be grown-up people—adults—that her mechanism for loving them falls apart; it is when they are living in a cold apartment in New York, hungry and penniless because they have decided to be a writer, writing to her, seeking sympathy, a word of encouragement, love, that her mechanism for loving falls apart. Her reply to one of her children who found herself in such a predicament was “It serves you right, you are always trying to do things you know you can’t do.” Those were her words exactly. All the same, her love, if we are dying, or if we are in jail, is so wonderful, a great fortune, and we are lucky to have it. My brother was dying; he needed her just then.

She admits that she is jealous when it turns out that her two children adore their grandmother; and is awed by the unflinching, tender care her mother gives her dying brother in that small place where the government, hospitals, and families are too poor to afford AZT. But in the end, on the subject of her mother, Kincaid is the anti-Colette.

She remembers when her mother decided that her daughter was needed at home and took her out of school just before she was to sit for exams that would have led her to a university education. And she also remembers that she had to take care of her little brothers when their father, her stepfather, fell dangerously ill. The brother who died was then two. Kincaid was fifteen and read so much that she neglected him. One day their mother returned to find his diaper unchanged. In her fury, she hunted down every book, placed them on a stone heap, and doused them with kerosene. “This event, my mother burning my books, the only thing I owned in my then-emerging life, fell into that commonplace of a cliché, the repressed memory.”

She’d forgotten the burning of her books, she says, until, years later, the memory came back to her after she heard from a friend that her mother had taken credit in a way for her having become a writer. Her mother had proudly said that she herself had once chased away a boy whom she believed only pretended to love books. He was really hanging around their house because he probably wanted to “become one of the ten fathers of the ten children I would have had.” Her mother, the enemy of the “then-emerging life,” Kincaid suspects of wanting to be seen in retrospect as an ally of her ambition. However, Kincaid prefers to remain self-invented, and not to share credit, saying that after she had, indeed, become a writer she realized that through the act of writing about her early life she had saved herself.

To bring back the books her mother burned, she is willing to write “again and again until they [are] perfect, unscathed by fire of any kind; the source of the books has not died, it only comes alive again and again in different forms and other segments.” She says that she believes that writing preserves life, is itself an afterlife. In writing about her brother she keeps alive a man who left nothing of his own behind. Then, too, to write about her brother is what she offers him, the consolation she offers herself: she can rest him among the remembered. “And so I wrote about the dead for the dead.” Maybe this is the guilt of the one who got away to make another life, her life, which she knows to be better than the one her brother stayed behind in.

Kincaid spells out in My Brother her view of her writing as an act of compensation for those who haven’t her need or ability to make literature of their experience. Frequently in her memoir, Kincaid’s cunning suppression of her guile uncovers the direct link between her life and her fiction. In addition to protesting the fact of death by recounting her brother’s, My Brother is a portrait of the writer returning to the landscapes of her novels and thinking about her subjects, her characters. To ponder her experience and the place she comes from is for her to confront history. Kincaid’s Antigua has become a place at a standstill. Nothing is made there. Everything must be brought in. Through her gaze the sad, cast-aside place becomes a cosmopolitan’s subject.

In her latest novel, Mr. Potter, Kincaid has completed another deal with the past. Someone else gets brought back to the brink of life, reprieved from further decay. In exchange, Kincaid perhaps gets to put a story where there had been none, fill in an absence, locate another piece in the puzzle of the self, and “interrogate” the history of the “ordinarily degraded.” Mr. Potter can be viewed as one of her promised rescues of a burned book like the memoir of her brother dying of AIDS, which points to this novel, stylistically and thematically. We know from My Brother that Kincaid did not grow up with her real father. Often in Mr. Potter, the omniscient narrator moves casually into the first person to repeat that the Mr. Potter whose life she has been describing and whose thoughts she has been speculating about is her father, whom her mother never spoke to after she, seven months pregnant, took his savings hidden in their mattress and ran away from him:

And my mother Annie Victoria Richardson, her hair then, as a young woman of sixteen and then seventeen and then eighteen and then still a young woman at twenty-five when she met Mr. Potter, her hair then was long and black and waved down her back past her shoulders…. How beautiful she was then, I have been told so by her and by other people who knew her then, but not by Mr. Potter, for he never spoke to me of her, he never spoke to me of anything, he never spoke to me at all.

Though most of Kincaid’s work is marked by her coldness of voice, Mr. Potter is sorrowful, almost warm, because she has set for herself the difficult task of trying to convey the despair and resignation of inarticulate inhabitants of a claustrophobic and lonely paradise. Mr. Potter is a fiction, because Kincaid says so, though this work, like so many of the best, strange, and challenging novels of the past two decades, falls between fiction and memoir. It has a complicated story but no plot, which makes summary difficult. Kincaid’s style in this novel is captivating, but it shows a self-consciousness about having a literary style that her previous novels hadn’t had to this degree:

See him a small boy! Eating his penny loaf with no butter on it, drinking his cup of cocoa with no milk in it, never drinking a cup of milk at all; eating his small amount of rice and fish that came from the bottom of the pot, the part that had burned. See his clothes, his khaki pants, his shirt of chambray, thinned in some parts, shredded in some parts, hang without shape on his poor frame, shrink away from his body as if in terror of touching that coarse, scaly covering that is his skin. See him walk across a yard, the soles of his feet bare, naked, as it meets the immediate, near surface of the earth…. See the small boy, so tired, so hungry, before he falls asleep, just before he falls asleep, and hear the grinding sound from his belly, like an old unoiled saw, its blade put to green wood. See the small boy asleep, in a slumber so deep, and his dreams become so much a reality, so much a world of its own, and this world is sometimes the opposite of the one he knows when awake and sometimes it is just the same, and sometimes he does not miss them and sometimes he does not even remember them afterward. See the small boy asleep in a slumber so deep, seamlessly still, his body seems stilled, but not in death….

The way she says things counts for everything and so the deceptively simple tone can offer up aperçu after aperçu. Key phrases surface again and again, rising up with clauses of yet more descriptive detail of peasant life. The narrator doesn’t give her father’s story chronologically. The novel unfolds in loops of revelatory, shattering, familial information. Each chapter marks a new beginning, a starting over, becoming more revelatory, expansive, and wider in scope than the last.

We first meet Mr. Potter one typical sun-soaked day, on his way to the garage. Along the way he sees a weary, pregnant dog sheltering in the shade of a tree native to the dry plains of Africa; a blind beggar with a cup; a woman smoking a cigarette; birds; and a boy on his way to school. But, the narrator tells us, Mr. Potter takes nothing in his immediate environment as a reflection of himself. It is too closely bound to him. “Between him and all that he saw there was no distance of any kind.” In the garage, he wipes down the three cars that belong to Mr. Shoul, who is upstairs having the sort of breakfast he would not have had back in the Lebanon or Syria, some “barren and old” place, that he comes from. Mr. Potter, a taxi driver, will find his first fare of the day at the jetty. A large steamer is bringing Dr. Weizenger, a Czech Jewish refugee from Nazi Europe, and his English wife.

Histories of upheaval, murder, and terror have brought Mr. Potter, Mr. Shoul, and Dr. Weizenger to the same place. Mr. Potter’s “very existence in the world in which he lived had been made possible by such things, but he did not dwell on them and he could not dwell on them any more than he could dwell on breathing.” The scene concentrates on the cultural misunderstandings that make real communication, or even the desire for such, between Mr. Potter and Dr. Weizenger impossible. They cannot speak English in the same way; even their feelings of being oppressed by the vastness of the sea differ. Mr. Potter dismisses Dr. Weizenger in his mind as dead (“‘E dead”); Weizenger immediately regards Potter as the embodiment of ignorance and stupidity.

This sentence should begin with Dr. Weizenger emerging, getting off the launch that has brought him from his ship which is lying in the deep part of the harbor, but this is Mr. Potter’s life and so Dr. Weizenger must never begin a sentence; I am not making an authorial decision, or a narrative decision, I only say this because it is true: Mr. Potter’s life is his own and no one else should take precedence.

Kincaid will point out at every opportunity that Mr. Potter “could neither read nor write, he could not understand himself, he could not make himself known to others, he did not know himself, not that such things would have brought him any amount of happiness.” The narrator speaks for Mr. Potter not in order to put down a European like Dr. Weizenger, but rather to have Dr. Weizenger’s voyage to nowhere stand for the passage Mr. Potter’s African forebears made.

The novel begins with a moment of displacement, as, presumably, did Mr. Potter’s history in Antigua. Because Mr. Potter does not wonder about his Spanish, English, Scots, and African antecedents, the figure of Weizenger is the reminder that whole peoples can be “erased” from history. Just as Dr. Weizenger grew up in the middle of a “civilization” and was then abruptly removed from “the peace of being an ordinary human being,” so, too, ancestors of Mr. Potter’s could have experienced a similar trauma in the loss of home. The descendants of these unknowns are each “subject to this world, a small something in the great and big world that answered to nothing and to no one.” The scene of these two losers of history meeting each other makes for a long and tentative windup to the main body of the novel. But once he drives away from Dr. Weizenger, we enter his personal history.

Mr. Potter’s father was a fisherman, handsome, copper-colored Nathaniel Potter, who had twenty-one children, knew only eleven of them, which he had by eight different women, but wanted none of them. His life was a cycle of checking fish pots, mending fishnets, and watching his income remain static year after year, child after child. He learned from his own father how to make oars and build boats, but after he became an adult he ceased to think of his father, or of anyone before him. Later on, the “capriciousness” of life, of history and memory, caused anger to well up in him. Love should have entered his existence, because he needed it, the narrator says, but love never did. The emptiness of his fish pots emboldened him enough to curse God and destroy his nets. When he died, “his body had blackened, as if trapped in the harshest of fires.”

Through his story she demonstrates that the sun-soaked climate that may be the holiday ideal is monotonous and numbing to those who live on Antigua; that she herself comes from lines of people who make children and then manage to have no connection with them; and that such people are the ones who haven’t benefited from the colonial educational system. “Nathaniel Potter withheld himself from the world of Mr. Potter, my father, the man who could not read and write and so made someone who could do both, read and write, and so made someone who would always be in love with that, reading and writing.” The past is more of an eternity than the future, Kincaid’s narrator says.

Mr. Potter was born in 1922, the narrator tells us—or, rather, lets drop. The narrator traces her father’s evolution from the unloved Drickie, to Roderick, and, finally, to Mr. Potter. We learn that his mother drowned herself when he was five, that his Dickens-like orphan’s apprenticeship as a child at least later included lessons in how to drive. Kincaid shows us his grown-up facial features, his carefully kept clothes, his love for the taxi he drives for a living. She asserts his indifference to the hurt his life has brought to others; describes, often, his blankness as he fails to register the limitations of his life; and notes that his daughters by other women jostled for pride of place at his funeral, something she learns from the gravedigger, when they are hunting about for the spot where Mr. Potter might be buried. He left what was considered a fortune on Antigua, and he left it to distant relations from another island. We have heard very little from Mr. Potter himself, apart from phrases of patois. There is no dialogue in this novel, and yet by the end Kincaid has summoned him, conjured him up somehow, a vividly described, eviscerated character:

And in those seventy years of his life, he did not wish to be anyone better than himself and he most certainly did not wish to be anyone worse; and in those seventy years, each day held its own peril, and each day’s peril was so unbearable and then so ordinary, as if it were breathing, and in this way suffering became normal, and in this way suffering became life itself, and any interruption in this suffering, be it justice or happiness, or more suffering and injustice, was regarded with hostility and anger and disappointment.

Perhaps Kincaid’s narrator sees herself as the connection, or the one to make the connections, between people who made little of belonging to one another when they were alive. There is a memorable passage in which Mr. Potter, then the toddler Drickie, is out walking with his mother, who hurls abuse at a man sitting under a tree. Mr. Potter knows without being told that the man who doesn’t deign to answer is his father, and he will remember his face, but not his mother’s. Later on, Kincaid’s narrator recalls her own encounter with the man who set her life going. She is outside his garage, waiting for him to give her money, for recognition. But Mr. Potter passes her without a word. Similarly, when telling of the suicide of Mr. Potter’s mother, the narrator remembers that while playing on the rocks by the sea where her paternal grandmother had last been seen, her own mother vanished from her sight for a moment, filling her with dread that her mother had drowned, too.

Kincaid wants to strike deep, as if to reproach history itself for the making and then the forgetting of people she would have been like had she not found a way to become different. Mr. Potter gives a feeling that the narrator has visited every spot in her father’s world and those of the people in his life and has gone to some trouble to see what they would have seen, to imagine their feelings. She has come away with something like understanding and forgiveness of these outwardly cold, taciturn folk, though the blame for what things are like for such fragmented families isn’t imperial history’s alone:

A line runs through Mr. Potter’s very own self: I hold in my hand a document that certifies the day of his birth,…and there is an empty space with a line drawn through it where the name of his father, Nathaniel Potter, ought to have been. And I hold in my hand a document that certifies the day of my own birth…and there is an empty space with a line drawn through it where the name of my father, Roderick Nathaniel Potter, ought to be, for Mr. Potter is my father; my father’s name was Roderick Nathaniel Potter. And this line that runs through Mr. Potter and that he then gave to me, I have not given to anyone,… I have brought it to an end, I have made it stop with me, for I can read and I can now write and I now say, in writing that this line is drawn through the space where the name of the father ought to be has come to an end, and that from Mr. Potter to me, no one after that shall have a line drawn through the space where the name of the father ought to be, and that through him coming through me, everyone after that shall have a father and a mother and so will inherit twofold the great cauldron of misery and the small cup of joy that is all of life.

But in addition to breaking with the custom of being either fatherless or motherless, Kincaid’s narrator views her own life as an end to something else. Illiteracy, that other legacy of slavery and poverty, has also been overcome for her family through her.

Kincaid once said in an interview that she thought of her writing life as part of her domestic life. However, her books are forceful reminders that she, as a writer, is entirely on her own. Kincaid’s prose carries within itself the sensation of how miraculous it is to her, to us, that she is literate, that, given the drift of history and where she comes from, she became a writer at all. Her books are a kind of last laugh on the British Empire, because here is its witness, and there is nothing to joke about.

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