Fleeing a Caribbean Plantation into a Mythic Wilderness (On Patrick Chamoiseau)

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SLAVE OLD MAN
By Patrick Chamoiseau
Translated by Linda Coverdale
151 pp. The New Press. $19.99.

The myth of Daphne and Apollo has an entrancing New World counterpart in Patrick Chamoiseau’s “Slave Old Man,” the tale of a plantation fugitive who disappears into the “forestine soul” of colonial Martinique. One fluid action sustains its plot: The old man runs. Pursued by a vicious dog, he finds rejuvenation in nature’s wonders after a lifetime of mute obedience. The world of slavery disintegrates in the elemental confrontations of the chase.

Imagine Walt Whitman adapting “Apocalypto” and you might approximate the awe and adrenaline of Chamoiseau’s action pastoral. The old man braves a nocturnal phantasmagoria of three-hooved horses, zombies with leafy heads, a demoness toting souls in an oxcart. He battles a venomous serpent and a swarm of mangrove crabs, but also revels in the delicate beauty of a rare fern flower, the fresh taste of soil and the miracle of trees gathering their “phantasmal contraband” of light. After nearly drowning in an ancient spring, he seamlessly assumes the novel’s narration, reborn in Adamic first person.

Before escaping, the old man is barely distinct from the sugar vats on a plantation where he goes by the name “Old-Syrup.” Neither his master nor his fellow slaves detect his dormant spirit, which erupts only after he locks eyes with the mastiff that will hunt him down. His exhilarating flight evokes the shock of freedom with tactile immediacy. “The world was born without any veil of modesty,” he marvels. “Buds and rotting spots, seeds and broken blossoms, earthly night solar light — bound themselves together in one momentum.”

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If the runaways of American literature seek autonomy and self-ownership, Chamoiseau’s maroon enters a “Great Woods” where distinctions between past and present, human and animal, Old World and New dissolve. Deep time makes a mockery of the plantations’ blinkered order; under the ancient canopy, the master’s stride falters and the voices of African hunters and Amerindian priests resound from the depths of unrecorded millenniums.

 

Each chapter begins with an epigraph from Édouard Glissant, another Martinican writer who, with Chamoiseau and others, counts among the luminaries of the literary movement called Créolité. Since the 1980s, the group’s writings have emphasized the heterogeneity of Caribbean history, the fundamental contiguity of life and literature with ecology, and a tradition of oral storytelling that has become the touchstone of Chamoiseau’s oeuvre.

His novel “Solibo Magnifique” investigates the murder of a legendary raconteur, while the Prix Goncourt-winning “Texaco” tells Martinique’s history through the epic origin story of a Fort-de-France shantytown. A city planner tasked with the neighborhood’s destruction is kidnapped by the residents, forced to become the captive audience of a community pleading its case.

Compared with the digressive exuberance of these more densely populated fictions, “Slave Old Man” transpires in a solitude that can be limiting. Chamoiseau’s descriptions of the forest — beautifully translated from French and Creole by Linda Coverdale — are exhilarating, but the old man never quite comes into focus against the background of foliage and verbiage. A character without relationships or concrete memories, he risks becoming a cipher. Opacity, though, is a measure of his independence. The opposite of a fugitive pamphleteer facing an audience of abolitionists, he refuses all scrutiny, offering even Chamoiseau, his ventriloquist, only “the immense testimony of his bones.”

If the old man proves himself to anyone, it is his canine pursuer. A nightmare hellhound who hunts runaways and feeds on wasps, hot peppers and hummingbird heads, the dog represents “the Master’s rudderless soul” and “the slave’s suffering double,” serving as the animal crux of a cruel human hierarchy. His encounters with the old man constitute the novel’s most vivid action, a struggle that evolves into an exorcism of slavery. Pushed beyond the roles imposed by their common master, man and mastiff unravel a knot of domination that can’t be maintained without the subordination of animals to human beings, wilderness to “civilization.” The sparks from their contest kindle this bonfire of a book, a maroon story written with “a folktale parlance and a runner’s wind.”

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