July 12, 2010

Book Review: A Morning at the Office by Edgar Mittelholzer

When I first held the latest edition of A Morning at the Office between my hands, I did so with fear and trembling. Thirty years ago, I’d read the novel on a Sunday afternoon (when I was supposed to be in church) and the memory stayed with me. In fact, along with Miguel Street by VS Naipaul and Voices Under the Window by John Hearne, Morning served as a model for my own storytelling. Now as a part of Peepal Tree’s Caribbean Modern Classics, I returned to the novel hoping that that in re-reading, it would still have the same appeal.

I am happy to say that Morning is still a winner. Mittelholzer’s story in which Horace Xavier, the black office boy at Essential Products, has fallen in love with Nanette Hinckson, the coloured secretary of Everard Murrain, an Englishman, is still as entertaining as when it was first published in 1950. All of the passions and jealousies of office life are still present. And even the intrigues. So when Xavier leaves a poem from As You Like It on Ms. Hinckson’s desk, the drama over colour, class, and ethnicity unfolds:

“He [Xavier] considered that it was foolish of him to have become enamoured of this lady…he should have remembered that he was only a black boy, whereas she was a coloured lady of good family. He was dark brown; hers was a pale olive. His hair was kinky; hers was full of large waves and gleaming. He was a poor boy, the son of a cook; she was well off and of good education and good breeding. He was low class; she was middle class” (29).

What begins as a young man’s folly of falling in love with an older woman (which young man hasn’t?) quickly evolves into a conflict of race and class which implicates every member of the office. What is impressive, given the time of the original publication, is that Mittelholzer is careful not to present the characters as stereotypes, even though the characters react to each other based on race and class stereotypes. For the reader, Mr. Jagabir, the office accountant, becomes an object of scorn not because of his Indian lineage, but his obsequiousness. However, Mr. Jagabir does not interpret the events in this way. Neither does his coworkers. Nor is he aware that his behaviors encourage the stereotypes that he wishes to avoid. A scene with Mr. Lopez, a Spanish Creole, demonstrates Mittelholzer’s skill:

“He [Mr. Lopez] turned his head as Mr. Jagabir’s chair scraped. He saw the bulge in Mr. Jagabir’s coat pocket – and the grease stain. The grease from the roti had seeped through… (199).”

Whether Mr. Jagabir’s behavior is as a result of frugality or ethnic identity depends on the reader’s biases. However, for many of the other characters, with the exception of Edna Bisnauth, the assistant stenotypist and closet poet, their reactions are based on perceptions of race, class, and ethnicity. The ensuing actions from Xavier’s innocent gesture reveal Mittelholzer's skill, which elucidates the conflicts without falling prey to the inherent constructs.

A Morning at the Office has earned its place in the Caribbean literary canon. For despite Mittelholzer’s dalliance with “telescopic objectivity,” Morning is an artfully plotted story of unrequited love. Xavier, like many of the other characters in the novel, learns that love tests the ego’s defenses to discover worthiness. Morning’s exploration of the race and class demons that haunt our lives is exemplary. But it also proves that every classic must first be a good story.


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Stephen A. Bess said...

Geoffrey, This book sounds like a good read. I think that I've mentioned before that Caribbean literature has been one of my post-college delights when it comes to reading. In college, it was mostly African American lit. Although, I love African American literature, I also love reading about the lives and imaginations of those in the Diaspora. Thanks - Peace~

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Stephen. It's a great story and I think anyone who'd like to learn HOW to write a story should read this novel.