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Slave Old Man

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The books I often find most difficult to review are those recommended by someone whose suggestions are not taken lightly. So, on Ron Shoop’s (retired RH rep) recommendation, I requested a copy of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man with the promise that I would, indeed, review it. This review took me at least three reads, and Slave Old Man will now remain on my nightstand for years to come.

Slave Old Man is marketed as a novel although its page count of 133 would suggest a novella, which eventually morphs into a fictional memoir in the old slave’s voice, then back to the original narrator as he describes the master when in pursuit of the old slave. It’s unlike any American slave narrative I’ve ever read, and that is not only because Chamoiseau’s slave is in the West Indies Caribbean island of Martinique, but from the very beginning, I believed the old slave was escaping to reach something more than escaping from something.

He lives on a sugar plantation in which he is held in near reverence by the other slaves. As the title suggests, he is a very old man. He is old and ailing. He does not know his age. He cannot remember his name. He does not recognize the music which moves others to dance and sing. But inside his ancient body is a voice of the unknown or forgotten, calling, always calling to him.

“He does not dance, does not speak, does not react to the cattle-bell summons of the drums.” Yet, he attends the dancing: “He joins in the dancing while remaining stock-still. He stocks his soul with scattered, reconstructed, lopsided things, which weave him a shimmering memory. Often, at night, this memory crushes him with insomnia.”

Slave Old Man is poetry, not in stanzas, but in breaths, even the Table of Contents is listed as Cadences, not chapters. Chamoiseau’s language never fails to shimmer.

The story consists of three main characters: the old slave, a giant mastiff dog trained to go after runaway slaves to either drag them back or kill them, and the Dark Wood, a mysteriously phantasmic place inhabited by zombies (so says the master) and living matter from which few escapees ever leave alive. The mastiff is beyond ferocious; he is scary as hell. The old slave remembers the mastiff arriving on the island from a slave ship, as abused as any slave cargo. The master keeps the dog always hungry in a solitary pen and feeds him fresh, bloody meat.

When the old slave is near the harbor, “each swaying of a slave ship in the calm waters of the outer harbor revived a primordial rocking within him.” At times he can taste the sea and recalls scenes from the “Before-land.” It is this “Before-land,” its voices of a past, its sounds both strangely familiar and frightening, that slave old man escapes to in the Deep Wood. “Before dawn—when a healing glint prepares to rise from the earth to prophesy an innocent sun—the slave old man straightens up. He puts on his coarse linen livery. He settles his old chapeau-bakoua straight upon his skull. He grips his staff and leaves, tranquil, his step vibrant with a holy energy.”

He is far away and deep into the wood before the mastiff begins its howling.

The old slave’s journey into the wood is described by the narrator in breathtaking language: “It brays a vital commandment inside him. A call of life. A call to life.” For the first time slave old man feels human. The mastiff and master are now in hot pursuit. At some point, the old slave stumbles and falls, sinking into a spring of dark “primitive matter.” Calling for help is pointless. He believes he is dying and welcomes it. But his breath returns, and his struggle succeeds. “The things around him were formless, moving as if seen through very clear water.” And then it happens: slave old man’s voice breaks into the narrative: “I could lift up my eyes and see these trees that had appeared terrifying to me in their great-robes of the night.”

Now, as if rising from a dark baptism, slave old man, with the sound of the mastiff not far away, runs further into the Deep Wood, into what often appears to be both the beginning and end of his life.

There is much to discover in Slave Old Man’s story. Chamoiseau’s use of both French and Creole is made all the more accessible by translator Linda Coverdale’s notes. The story does not play heavily on the physical abuse of slavery, but rather, it reminds us of what is lost when a people’s “Before-land” is taken from them, when oral histories are smothered, when the voices of mothers and fathers are no longer heard. As all living things must die and eventually decompose, their bones are returned to the earth. Their voices are not lost,  they are there, in the earth itself, its oceans, its springs, its forests, its rocks.  The “Before-land” is real and calls us to listen. – Sunny Solomon

Also available by Patrick Chamoiseau: Texaco; Solibo Magnificent; School Days; Creole Folktales; Childhood; Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows Migrant Brothers; Strange Words; Seven Dreams of Elmira.

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