Two decades later, this thrilling novel about a Caribbean slave who bolts for freedom pursued by a bloodthirsty mastiff has lost none of its trauma and gravitas in its English translation
Book review: Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel tells a strikingly simple story
It’s taken two decades for Martinique-born Prix Goncourt-winning writer Patrick Chamoiseau’s The Old Slave and the Mastiff to be published in an English translation. But perhaps there’s never been a better moment for this magnificent novel to extend its reach, as literary attempts to deal with black pain and the trauma of the slave trade are met with more widespread approbation than ever before.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s potent novel about the tormented legacy of slavery in the Southern states of America, recently won the National Book Award, and Zora Neale Hurston’s until-now unpublished first book, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” has finally found a publisher, nearly 90 years after it was written.
When we first meet Chamoiseau’s protagonist, he’s referred to as “slave old man”, a being of “incalculable age”, the oldest slave on the Martinique plantation where the story begins. The reader’s first glimpse of him as an individual, without the inclusion of the word “slave” is when Chamoiseau sets his protagonist apart from his fellow men and women: “The old man has never joined in at the slaves’ celebrations or the veillée storytelling, when the paroleurs-talkers tell how to defeat the mastiff. He does not dance, does not speak, does not react to the cattle-bell summons of the drums.”
This is the first instance of a subtle shift in the language that Chamoiseau uses to describe his hero: with the more distance he puts between himself and the plantation in the thrilling extended chase sequence, the more his agency increases.
On the surface, Chamoiseau’s novel tells a strikingly simple story – one day, without warning, this old man is hit by la décharge, “a bad sort of impulsion vomited up from a forgotten spot, a fundamental fever, a blood clot, a désursaut pas-bon: a not-good jump-up, a shivering summons that jolted you raide off the tracks.”
So fierce is the impulse that accosts our hero, it’s described as more like a “combustion”.
The old man makes his escape, without a second thought, plunging into the tall trees surrounding the plantation.
The change in his status is immediate. He disappears into the forest at the end of that chapter as “the old slave man,” but reappears at the beginning of the next in among the “enveloping vegetation”, “another world. Another reality”, as “the old man”. Not quite a free man – his Master is soon in pursuit, the bloodthirsty mastiff, a “Beast-of-war. And slaughter,” trained to hunt escaped slaves, by his side – but one who no longer answers the commands of another.
Chamoiseau now refers to his hero outright as the “old man who had been a slave”. There’s a before and after in our hero’s story, and we’re in the after. Then, there’s an earthquake in the prose. Slap bang in the middle of a paragraph, the “he” suddenly becomes “I” and our hero is narrator of his own story.
It has long been Chamoiseau’s mission to give voice to those whom history denied. This is a story, he writes, “moulded from the great silences of our mingled stories, our intermingled memories. About an old man slave running through the Great Woods, not toward freedom: towards the immense testimony of his bones”. Chamoiseau’s writing has its roots in a tradition of oral storytelling, his prose lives and breathes like an actual body: oozing, beating, shuddering and shivering.
In her Translator’s Note, Linda Coverdale – whose work is exceptional here – describes Chamoiseau as a “free-range writer”, The Old Man and the Mastiff offering “loving and mischievous tribute” to the Creole languages. “Plantation owners used their own languages as a weapon of control over their traumatised slaves,” Coverdale explains, “who then turned that weapon against the oppressor: plantation storytellers said more in their homemade Creoles than their listening masters could ever understand.” And indeed, an uninitiated reader is in many ways as lost as those plantation owners, or would be without the illuminating endnotes Coverdale provides.
All the same, multiple meanings are often in play, which makes sense, given Chamoiseau’s description of how Creole works, quoted here by Coverdale: “speak in a way ‘that is opaque, devious – its significance broken up into a thousand sibylline fragments’. Which, if you think about it,” she adds, “is a fine definition of poetry.” Poetic is a term that immediately springs to mind when describing Chamoiseau’s prose, but the term as we recognise it lacks the weight, and the violence, it needs to carry here.
The road trip that Ward’s characters take in Sing, Unburied, Sing – from their Gulf Coast home up into the “black-soiled heart” of the Mississippi Delta – marks a journey back through history, and in the same way, as Chamoiseau’s protagonist flees deeper into the jungle, he encounters a “primordial darkness” that returns him to the hold of the ship that transported him from Africa. He then sinks into the briny deep itself, the graveyard for those who didn’t survive the crossing: “He sees himself as bone powder transforming into seaweed and rusty chain links. He sees skulls sheltering translucid fish.”