Patrick Chamoiseau is a French writer from the Caribbean island of Martinique, which is an “overseas region” of France. His novel Texaco won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1992. His 1997 novel, L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse, has just been translated into English as Slave Old Man (in the UK it is called The Old Slave and the Mastiff).
It is an absolutely riveting short novel, full of jarring wordplay and dark folk tale elements. Milan Kundera is quoted as calling Chamoiseau “the heir of Joyce and Kafka,” and that seems quite apt.
Chamoiseau is one of the leading proponents of créolité, or “creoleness,” which seeks to incorporate elements of the Creole language into French Caribbean writing. Linda Coverdale, who has translated several other books by Chamoiseau, does an excellent job of helping the English reader absorb the Creole words and phrases used. She lets them stand and makes their meaning clear either by context or by unobtrusive paraphrasing. When necessary she provides helpful footnotes.
The novel has a dreamlike, occasionally nightmarish, quality and elements of Magic Realism. The old slave of the title has lived on a sugar cane slave plantation for so long that he can’t remember if he was born there or if he was transported there from Africa. He has led a docile life on the plantation. He “has bleached out his life there,” we are told. “[H]is existence has had no apparent rhyme or reason. Simply the hypocritical aping of obedience, the postures of servility.”
When he accompanies the plantation’s Master to the docks to take possesion of an enormous mastiff who has crossed the ocean on a slave ship, the old slave feels something unusual stirring in him. The Master has bought the mastiff to chase down runaway slaves and the old man suddenly feels something connecting himself to the monstrous dog, and reacts as if to an inner challenge.
“Confronted by inner anarchy, he finds himself drifting toward the animal. He has no need to look at it: the mastiff lives inside him,” the narrator tells us.
Suddenly and uncharacteristically, and without any plan, the old slave runs away into the impenetrable jungle surrounding the plantation. He runs blindly in the night and when the sun comes up he runs blindfolded so that he can intuit the jungle, becoming wild and fecund along with it.
The Master, perplexed by the “betrayal” of the old slave for whom he felt such affection, sets out after him with the dog. But, he soon finds himself lost and alone. (“The Master saw himself sunk in shame. He was afraid. His pioneering impulse stalled. His conqueror’s stride faltered.”)
The real battle is between the slave and the mastiff. The novel becomes an intense combat between the two and the narrative voice begins to shift. We see things from the dog’s perspective and the “old man slave” begins to be called “the old man who had been a slave” and then abruptly he is “I” in the first person.
At the start of the tale the narrator tells us “Whenever our speech wants to take shape, it turns toward remembrance, as if drawn to a wellspring of still-wavering waters for which we yearn with an unquenchable thirst. Thus did the story of that slave old man make its way to me. A history greatly furrowed by variant stories, in songs in the Creole tongue, wordplay in the French tongue. Only multiplying memories could follow such a tanglement.”
By the end this tangled story has become universalized. In the final pages the narrator tells us that “We are all, like my runaway old-fellow, pursued by a monster. To escape our old certainties. Our so-careful moorings. Our cherished reflexes clock-timed into systems. Our sumptuous Truths.”
Slave Old Man is a visceral and exciting adventure tale, a political allegory and an illuminating parable about the human condition. It is also an unforgettable journey.
Old Man Slave by Patrick Chamoiseau (translated by Linda Coverdale) The New Press, 176pp.
The Old Slave and the Mastiff (Little, Brown UK)