Monday, January 25, 2016

The Ten Incarnations of Adam Avatar by Kevin Baldeosingh

The Ten Incarnations of Adam Avatar
Kevin Baldeosingh
2004, I read 2013
389 pages, speculative, historical fiction

Many thanks to Peepal Tree Press for providing a review copy of this book.

Adam Avatar, a Trinidadian of Indian descent, visits a psychiatrist with a very interesting complaint: he believes he is over 500 years old, having been reborn nine times, and that during his many lives he has witnessed many of the important political and social changes in the Caribbean region. His expressed purpose in visiting this psychiatrist is to present the stories of his other lives and hear the doctor’s opinion on whether or not he is insane.

The psychiatrist reads through the documents that Adam presents, a series of first-person life narratives featuring diverse characters who share some of the same features: piercing green eyes, resistance to aging, and a remarkable healing ability. Their personalities, lives, and even genders vary, but each narrative presents a well-rounded individual in a rich historical tapestry. The magic of the novel arises from the richness of these narratives and their connection with the complicated history of the Caribbean.


One thing that I very much appreciated was the diversity of the lives presented here: not only are 4 of the 10 incarnations female, but they also encompass a variety of ethnic (Taino, Spanish, English, mulatto, Portuguese, African, Indian) and religious (Native American, Catholic, indigenous African, protestant, Hindu) identities. Almost all of the incarnations are people of color. Many are poor, or even slaves. Some are intelligent, some less intelligent, and some think they are intelligent but prove otherwise by their actions. They speak in different dialects, from an almost unintelligible creole to an intellectual, enlightenment form of English. And the amount of knowledge about their other incarnations also varies widely. Through this diversity, the author shows a wide swath of humanity's experiences.

The greatest wisdom in the book comes through the juxtaposition of Adam's different lives. The first incarnation, Guiakan, is a Taino who watches in dismay as his people fall victim to the weapons and the diseases of the Spanish. When he dies, who is the next incarnation? A bloodthirsty Spanish conquistador, who takes extreme pleasure from brutally torturing and killing the remaining Tainos. A later incarnation is a very angry, revolutionary African slave, whose death gives rise to a pompous, pseudo-intellectual, free Black. The comparison of such extremes reveals the lies that people tell themselves about how different other groups of people are.

As a novel

Each narrative is a self-contained life story, complete in itself but also speaking to the others. Each is an utterly convincing, vivid work of narrative art. But the frame story is not. Ironically, the frame story was absolutely unconvincing for me, and I would almost have preferred if it had been left out. The psychiatrist seems very two-dimensional; he is there as a stick figure, to represent the audience without himself having any real significance. His ostensible diagnoses, treatments, and therapy sessions could have come from a self-help book. I would hate to see him for psychiatric treatment. As far as I can tell, the only reason the author included this frame narrator is to shed some doubt on Adam Avatar’s sanity, but he does not even do that effectively. I loved the novel itself, inasmuch as the individual life stories make up the novel. But the frame story left a lot to be desired.

This novel is well worth reading as both a series of life stories and a sweeping narrative covering over 500 years of Caribbean history. It is also, somewhat less importantly, a decent work of historical speculative fiction. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a deep, multifaceted read about human nature. There's a lot to chew over in this book, and I would love to discuss it with anyone else who has read it.

The Ten Incarnations of Adam Avatar is available in the US from Amazon and indiebound, in the UK from Amazon and directly from the publisher's website, in India from Amazon and worldwide from the Book Depository

Further Reading: 

"One from Ten," a review of this novel by Jeremy Taylor (Caribbean Review of Books/Caribbean Beat)
"What Became of the Taino?" by Robert M. Poole (Smithsonian Magazine)
"A History of Slavery and Genocide is Hidden in Modern DNA" by Joseph Stromberg (

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