Kei Miller’s fable-like third novel, Augustown, dramatizes half a century of Jamaican history as it unfolds in a locality outside the island’s capital of Kingston: the semi-ghetto of August Town. Alexander Bedward, the Jamaican Revival preacher and firebrand politician who operated out of Augustown in the Edwardian era, is central to the plot, which spans the years 1920 to 1982, when the Caribbean island was struggling to find its way out of colonialism. Bedward, a controversial figure, sought to challenge the anti-Christian prejudice (as he construed it) of the island’s British administration. The Bedwardite Movement, in its attempts to “chant down” colonial rule, in many ways foreshadowed the militant wing of Rastafari and other back-to-Africa religions. Pilgrims journeyed to August Town just to drink the spring waters personally blessed and bottled by the Reverend Bedward.
The novel, a Salman Rushdie-like impasto of modernist self-reflexivity and surrealist imagery, is enlivened by pages of island patois (“Awrite. Awrite. Don’t vex with me”) and a gallery of cartoonish, Augustown inhabitants. Among them is the elderly, ganja-smoking Rasta woman Ma Taffy, who was blinded, grotesquely, by rats but can look predictively out of her darkness into the future. Another larger-than-life character, a rudeboy gunman nicknamed “Soft-Paw”, strives to protect Augustown against corrupted police and other representatives of so-called “Babylon”.
The unnamed (and apparently deceased) narrator looks down on Augustown from a place high in heaven or perhaps from the mythical “Guinea” – the ancestral Africa to which the descendants of slaves one day hope to return. Appropriately, the novel is filled with images of weightlessness and flying. (“What is more human than the desire to rise above it all, to fly?” asks the narrator.) Bedward had not only attempted to fly, according to one legend, but had flown with his followers all the way to Africa. The self-styled “Shepherd of August Town” may have been delusional, but the yearning to “fly back to Guinea” typifies Afro-Caribbean slave songs. Perhaps Bedward was not (or not only) the crank that his detractors made him out to be.
In pages of limpid prose, Miller tells how Bedwardites had gathered in Augustown one day in 1920 to witness the long-promised “miracle” of their master’s ascent to heaven, but the preacherman was not seen to leave the ground. “Bedward Stick to the Earth”, scoffed Jamaica’s establishment newspaper The Gleaner (for which, bizarrely, the author’s grandfather Percy Miller was, incidentally, agriculture editor).
The following year, in 1921, Bedward was arrested by colonial British police on sedition charges and later died in a Kingston lunatic asylum. While the ‘Lord of August Town’ was alive, the imperial administration was powerless to disperse his immense following. By embracing blackness and black race-consciousness, dangerously, the “flying preacherman” Bedward had threatened to destabilize Jamaica’s colonial class.
Miller draws a parallel with the Bedwardite politics and a modern-day protest march of righteous Rastafarians against a colonially-minded school teacher who, in an access of “Babylonian” intolerance, cut off a Rasta pupil’s dreadlocks. As far as Rastafari is concerned, the classroom “barbering” of the boy Kaia is a fate as dreadful as Samson’s at the hands of Delilah. The protestors are led by the boy’s enraged mother Gina to the Augustown primary school gates – with unforeseen and dire consequences.
Less a novel than a collection of impressions and short stories, Augustown explores the class and racial divides that persist in Jamaica in spite of the reformist zeal of left-leaning politicians such as Michael Manley in the 1970s. Jamaica’s controversial radio chat show host Wilmot ‘Motty’ Perkins (twice misspelled here as ‘Mutty’) was a mixed-race or “browning” Jamaican, who typically scorned both Manley and Bedward. Paradoxically, the school teacher who cut off the lion’s mane of Rasta hair, Mr Saint-Josephs, sees himself as a “man fair of complexion”, even though he is black. (Skin-lightening creams are very popular in Jamaica.)