I don’t usually post about my Did Not Finish, or DNFs, on Regular Rumination, simply because there are so many of them. I used to be the kind of reader that would read a book through, but I have since changed. I’ll give up a book with 100 pages read or 100 pages left, without so much as a glance back in the direction of the book. Sometimes it is the fault of the book and sometimes it is my fault, in the sense that I simply wasn’t in the mood for the book. Sometimes, though, when I don’t finish a book it’s for a pretty good reason. The other problem is, that usually, when I find a book like One Big Damn Puzzler, I want to finish reading it just so I can tell you what’s wrong with it. Another benefit of finishing the book? There will be no naysayers telling me that I just don’t know its brilliance because I didn’t turn the last page. I’ve decided that I just can’t keep reading One Big Damn Puzzler and I’m going to tell you why. I bought this book quite a few years ago when it was on discount at B&N. You know the tables I’m talking about, where books are drastically reduced in price either because there has been a cover change or they’re just not selling. Usually there are good books on those tables and I was immediately drawn in by the cover and also the description of the novel: a man on a remote island is trying to translate Hamlet into Pidgin English. How cool does that sound? So what made me initially want to read this book was the use of language, but I hate to tell you that what has made me stop reading is also the language.
The beginning was promising. Managua has finally reached the iconic phrase from Hamlet, “To be or not to be, that is the question” and has decided on “Is be or is be not, is be one big damn puzzler”. His wife is searching for his pet pig to kill and eat for dinner. And a white man has mysteriously appeared on the island, with a “job” to do, but don’t worry, these natives are so primitive that they don’t even know what a job is. I want to preface this by saying that I don’t think this author intended to be as reckless with language, culture and race as he was. What we have here is a poorly researched novel that is therefore coming across as something worse than it probably actually is, though I don’t know for sure because I only read up to page 65. I was uneasy with the pidgin from the beginning. I have studied the formation of pidgins in the past and, while I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, I do have some experience with them. Whenever a character spoke in the pidgin, it sounded false. Let’s brush up on what a pidgin is, shall we?
From Wikipedia: It is most commonly employed in situations such as trade, or where both groups speak languages different from the language of the country in which they reside (but where there is no common language between the groups). Fundamentally, a pidgin is a simplified means of linguistic communication, as is constructed impromptu, or by convention, between groups of people. A pidgin is not the native language of any speech community, but is instead learned as a second language. A pidgin may be built from words, sounds, or body language from multiple other languages and cultures. Pidgins usually have low prestige with respect to other languages.
I already find fault with what Harding has done because he describes the pidgin developed on the island, not as a combination of languages, but simply because the islanders found that the English vocabulary was so much more efficient, so they used that instead. Except, they do the exact opposite when they are speaking. Basically, the formation of a language goes from a combination of languages, usually of two or more groups of people who are forced to live together through colonization, trade or slavery and then develops into a creole. Harding doesn’t give either of those dignities to the speakers of the “pidgin” in his novel. They speak what is essentially a poorly created pidgin on its way to being a poorly created creole. But what is a creole? Well, let’s look to Wikipedia:
Most often, the vocabulary comes from the dominant group and the grammar from the subordinate group, where such stratification exists. For example, Jamaican Creole features largely English words superimposed on West African grammar.
With no original language to work from, I’m not quite sure how Harding developed this creole. But maybe, you say, I am splitting hairs. Does anyone really care about the distinction between pidgin and creole? Isn’t it really just a metaphor? Well, I’m not sure I would agree with you that no one cares, but let’s move on to other problems. Sticking with language before we talk about social problems, what really made me stop and pause was this exchange:
“You is better hurry,” said Managua. “I is need shit.”
“Where’s the toilet?” William asked. he knew the hotel was unfinished, but he had no idea exactly how unfinished it was. (63)
This character is supposed to be from the US. No one from the US would ask where the toilet is, they ask where the bathroom is. Toilet is not a generic word that can refer to the actual toilet or the entire room, it only means the object. At least with my experience with US English. So here is where I really started to think about the “pidgin” I was reading. If this author, who undoubtedly has been exposed to many USians speaking, cannot get one simple detail like that correct, how on earth has he formulated an entirely authentic pidgin? Answer: he hasn’t. But maybe you, as a reader, are able to look past these language mistakes and look deeper at the plot. Perhaps this text is well-intentioned, with a humorous story underneath it. Those are not problems with the story, and that’s what’s really important, right? Well, even that made me stop reading. Please remember that this opinion is based on 65 pages of reading. Perhaps in the rest of this novel, the exploration of colonialism takes an introspective turn for the better. I just don’t think it does. Let’s take a look at the dichotomy: The British bring language! Knowledge! Rundown hotels! Food! Pigs! The USians bring land mines that often injure the people who live on the island. I don’t want to ignore my own biases here, because they’re pretty obvious. I don’t like to ignore the history of the US nor would I want to read an altered history of the US that sugarcoated the past. I don’t think the way any of the fictionalized history in One Big Damn Puzzler is fairly presented and the author’s own personal biases are clear.
Finally, I am dismayed by the representation of both the people that inhabit the island and the women. They are caricatures, in the worst sense of the word. The novel completely prescribes to the notion of the “noble savage”. Their sexual lives are described in detail in the first 65 pages and it is described as this magical place, where young men and women can have all the sex they want but rarely get pregnant before marriage. The islanders have not made any connection between sex and procreation, so the men are absolved from any responsibility, but don’t worry, most of them step up to the plate and are happy fathers anyway, because you know, that’s what men would do if us womens didn’t force them to be responsible.
Sorry, was that too snarky? I just couldn’t help myself. As one reviewer on GoodReads put it, “Slightly humorous, but so seeped in masculine obliviousness. The only mention of women AT ALL is when nipples poke through leis.” Yup, that pretty much covers it.
So, read this one at your own risk, I guess. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong, feel free to tell me to finish it, please point me in the direction of another novel of Harding’s that is good, because I believe there’s a good novel in here, I just couldn’t find it.