Patrick Chamoiseau's Slave Old Manby David Varno
Marooning in Dreams: Slave Old Man
translated by Linda Coverdale (The New Press, 2018)
Where to begin? Where else but the words. The first chapter of Slave Old Man, a small but richly layered, obsessive, lyrical novel written after the sprawling, Goncourt-winning Texaco, is named “Matter,” and that word comes to encompass a great deal. Many types of matter, from stones, water, and dirt to the bodies of animals and human beings are given voice through French and Creole to describe the memories and feelings they contain, the history they comprise, and the forces they are capable of. This is not magical realism, but rather a deeply focused exercise in imagination.
Through writing the story of a runaway slave in Martinique, Chamoiseau seems determined to capture a sense of the consciousness of the earth in order to inform the Caribbean’s tumultuous legacy. “When you trace swiftly from the source, and well before encountering your carnivals and your car-gluts of nowadays, you run raide into this lump of lava, which chills,” he writes in one of the verse passages that open each chapter. That contrast between hot and cold, between chaotic violence and solidification, is a powerful way to examine the molten chaos of the past, to sift through the trauma that has hardened into the ground.
On a sugar cane plantation where most of the slaves are afraid to run away because of the fate they would almost surely suffer under the Master’s monstrous dogs, in particular a mastiff that was shipped across the seas on the same passage suffered by some of the slaves, escape is an especially radical gesture. When an old man walks off one day toward the dense woods, his prospects of survival do not seem likely, even though he’s the only person on the plantation who doesn’t seem bothered by the mastiff. He often strides freely past the cage, while the others avoid it out of fear that the dog would catch their scent, and because they have seen what he has done to those who tried to go marooning.
As Chamoiseau builds momentum, he shows us the old man from the inside and the outside, allowing him to become a cipher for figures such as the Papa-conteur, the plantation’s storyteller. The old man would often sit on the sidelines during celebrations and storytelling, but he participated in his own way, allowing the rituals and dialogue to wash through him. “He seems inert but manages to decipher undecodable things [. . .] He plays the drums without playing them. 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.”
Perhaps it is the insomnia, and the bright strains of indeterminate memories, that guide his footsteps into the woods. Chamoiseau uses the man’s restless soul as a vehicle to explore a dream-state, which then yields to shifting points of view. The text inhabits the old man on the run, his master in pursuit, the mastiff following the scent, and even the molten rock in the forest and a sulfuric spring. More radical than describing the journey and memories of the water gushing up from the earth—“It came from afar . . . carrying along a way-back dream of sulfur and phosphorous. . . . It shared complicities with beaches and volcanoes”—is the shift in identity of the “I” from the writer to the old man himself. It’s as though the writer has been following the old man along with the mastiff, and once he’s ‘captured’ him, takes on his voice and becomes the object of the hunt. “I listened better to the fabulous silence. The sounds of the monster had not returned. But it was coming toward me with all speed.”
This unifying of diverse identities (a slave who speaks Creole and a cosmopolitan writer interested in bringing Creole stories into dialogue with world literature) may be part of what allowed me to experience a startling moment of empathy for the Master when he is caught in a moment of vulnerability, alone in the woods with no sign of his dog. The man is vile and irredeemable, and near the novel’s conclusion it is suggested that he will not be transformed by the insights that flow through him subconsciously of the horrors that he is complicit in. The “shame and fear” would lodge themselves in “spaces where he would never go,” but they would be lodged nonetheless, available for discovery by his children and their children.
Translator Linda Coverdale acknowledges that Chamoiseau’s use of different languages to accomplish this sense of unity will be more difficult for English readers to grasp than readers of the original French and Creole text, but this volume is a mastery of the balance between explanation and transparency. It is worth reading the introductory note to gain a sense of the common Creole words that she retains in her translation, as well as the endnotes that provide literary and historical background. In her afterword, she draws comparisons between the dilemma of Texaco’s narrator with that of Slave Old Man’s, to capture with words what is only known by the body and the earth: “Words are air, and how can one trap the wind?” It is a problem for the translator as well, but one that she has solved by showing how “language not only tells the story; it is the story, an enactment of the subversive action it describes.”
David Varno's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.