One from ten

Jeremy Taylor on The Ten Incarnations of Adam Avatar, by Kevin Baldeosingh; originally published in the Caribbean Review of Books

Kevin Baldeosingh

The Ten Incarnations of Adam Avatar, by Kevin Baldeosingh (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-84523-000-0, 454 pp)

 

James Michener did something like this in his 1989 novel Caribbean. In 810 pages and 16 sections, he swept through Caribbean and New World history, from the Amerindians to the Cuban exiles in Miami, telling an epic tale of Caribbean evolution.

Kevin Baldeosingh, the Trinidadian novelist and columnist, has gone one better. Michener’s stories were self-contained, but Baldeosingh’s are unified by a single character who appears, reincarnated, in each episode. He is an Amerindian chief, a Spanish conquistador, a Portuguese slave trader, a high-class madam in 17th-century Barbados, a female pirate, an African slave, a “free coloured” slave-owner in Trinidad, a stickfighter, and an Indo-Trinidadian fighting in World War II. He turns up in Haiti, in Spain and Portugal, England and Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana.

His tenth incarnation is still in progress as the book begins. He is the Adam Avatar of the title, aged 49, and is teaching a university course in how to think. His life story is told to a deeply bemused psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist’s confusion is understandable, since his patient appears to be five hundred years old, and is resistant to anti-delusional drugs and medical categorisation. (Of course, if the shrink had consulted his dictionary, he would have remembered that Adam is the essential man, and a divine or spiritual reality manifested in human form is called an avatar.)
In each story, the “avatar” is green-eyed and mysteriously birthed; he (please excuse the pronoun) ages slowly, and has miraculous powers of self-healing. He becomes dimly aware of his past lives, and can draw on remembered skills like language and martial arts. He is emotionally detached, with little or no fear, and knows that he is immortal. He undergoes a radical transformation in skill, knowledge, or understanding; and each new life points to a sort of progress —?not necessarily individual, but in the broader sense that a sexual predator is still better than a conquistador, a stickfighter more evolved than a pirate.

The picture is complicated by a sinister figure called the Shadowman, who pursues the avatar down the centuries, appearing in his dreams and intervening in his life at moments of change or crisis; and, after exactly fifty years, he delivers the coup de grace which dispatches the avatar and prepares him for a new incarnation. This Shadowman is huge and black and enormously strong, with a shaven head, dressed always in a brown tunic with leather sandals and copper bracelets, and armed with a silver spike. He can’t be beaten in combat, or kept away by cunning or by love. He is briefly associated with Rawan, the villain of the Hindu Ramayan, with Kali, with Ogun, and with the dark side of the human psyche.

Kevin Baldeosingh’s two previous novels were light and amusing Trinidadian satires, The Autobiography of Paras P (1996) and The Virgin’s Triangle (1997). So this 454-page historical epic is an interesting change of direction. It is also an imaginative tour de force, involving the creation of ten different worlds, each with its own time and space, its own physical detail and mortal characters, and sometimes with its own form of English. The avatar is convincingly human, whether inhabiting a male or female body, and regardless of time and geography; he is as noble or appalling as circumstances require.

The book is just as ambitious in its themes, which include genocide, vengeance, sexual warfare, power, freedom, adaptation, self-assertion, and spiritual growth. To be a Caribbean person, Baldeosingh seems to suggest, is to have all these ghosts of the past whispering and clamouring inside you; to be, simultaneously, all these things. The tales themselves are a structure within which the author can show how the past drives the present within each psyche.

Not surprisingly, the characters, trapped within their space-time boxes, can only speculate about what all this means. “Perhaps,” thinks the Portuguese slave trader as he grasps the reality of reincarnation, “this is why God refuses to let me die: so that, in his infinite mercy, I may have another chance to save my soul from the eternal fires of Hell”. Of the Shadowman, the soldier reflects: “My only doubt lies in not knowing what our eternal conflict is all about . . . So he seems to work to some plan, but what that plan may be I have no idea.”

The reader is not much better placed. What does the Shadowman stand for, what is the purpose of reincarnation, why is each life lopped off after fifty years by the Shadowman’s silver spike? There are plenty of ideas: take your choice.

In the book’s final section — supposedly Adam Avatar’s musings as he awaits the Shadowman on the eve of another fiftieth birthday — more ideas still are stirred into the pot. “Only in the past five centuries have human beings truly begun to master their worst selves,” Avatar reflects, though he concedes that we are still lacking in moral will. How can amnesiac people (he wonders) be persuaded that life does move forward, that not all is futile, that wretchedness really is decreasing? Only by taking the long view (and Avatar’s view is certainly that), and teaching people to become sufficiently rational to act in pursuit of moral progress.

This has been a consistent theme in Kevin Baldeosingh’s newspaper columns in Trinidad, and is reflected in the avatar’s most recent occupation (“I try to pull together several subjects so students will learn to apply clear and rigorous thought to their particular fields of study. So I lecture on philosophy, psychology, literature, physics, biology, economics, as well as history”).
The various narrative voices in the book work on the whole better than the philosophising. For Baldeosingh leaves a conceptual mystery at the core of the book. Adam Avatar disappears at the end, leaving no word about his final confrontation with the Shadowman’s silver spike or the possibility of yet more incarnations. No answers are supplied to the questions about purpose and meaning. (Well, how could they be?) Readers must decide for themselves whether the idea of a slow decline in human wretchedness really stands up, and, if so, whether rationality, reincarnation, or cosmic nemesis have anything to do with it. And Mr Avatar is surely pushing his luck a bit too far when he claims that:

In all my lives, real meaning has come from the so-called ordinary things: family, friends, children, fun, and work . . . we [humans] are not humble enough to accept that our ordinariness is meaningful, and not conceited enough to realise that we are gods who create our own meaning . . . In the end, it is only the fact of living that matters.

Adam Avatar must have his own definition of “ordinary”: conventional domestic contentment has hardly been a feature of his many turbulent lives.

Nevertheless, this book is a remarkable achievement, a magnum opus with plenty to say, both about history and ideas, to anyone willing to stay the course. It’s a pity that the small photograph on the back cover doesn’t show whether or not the author has green eyes.

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), August 2005. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.