Review: ‘Slave Old Man’: The hallucinogenic tale of a runaway slave


[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Rebecca Foster’s (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) “‘Slave Old Man’: The hallucinogenic tale of a runaway slave,” is a review of Patrick Chamoiseau’s  Slave Old Man (The New Press, 2018) translated from the Creole and French original L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse (published by Gallimard in 1997) by Linda Coverdale. Foster writes:

“Stories of slavery do not interest us much.” Coming as it does on the first page of “Slave Old Man,” Patrick Chamoiseau’s myth-infused narrative of an escaped slave, it’s clear that such a statement is tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, the runaway success of books like Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” suggests that we can’t get enough of slavery stories, and may account for this 1997 title recently being made available in English translation for the first time.

Mr. Chamoiseau is a social worker and author from the Caribbean island of Martinique. The best-known of his 12 novels is “Texaco” (1992), winner of the Prix Goncourt. Several of his works incorporate Creole folktales. Translator Linda Coverdale has chosen to leave snippets of Martinican Creole in this text, rendering the exotic familiar. In between the chapters, which are called “cadences,” passages from fellow Martinican writer Édouard Glissant serve as epigraphs or interludes. The effect is harmonious — a symphony of languages and voices.


The novel has an opening that might suit a gloomy fairytale: “In slavery times in the sugar isles, once there was an old black man.” Not until two-thirds of the way through does the protagonist acquire a name, and even then it’s just a nickname, “Fafa” — “Old-Syrup,” because he’s the one who cooks the sugar. He seems to be as old as the hills, and the other 166 slaves look up to him as a “fount of wisdom and history.” A folk healer as well as a hard worker, “he blazed up abruptly in a beautiful bonfire of life.”

Such poetic turns of phrase, rich with alliteration, are characteristic of the novel’s language. It is full of delightfully unexpected verbs (”He sent his body across dead stumps”) and metaphors, such as “chessboards of reverie” and “vulva dark, carnal opacity.” The originality and musicality of phrases such as “Gluey luminescence” are also a testament to Ms. Coverdale’s skill: she has translated 80 plus books and is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

By the end of the first chapter, this dutiful slave has turned fugitive, shocking everyone on the sugar cane plantation — not least the Master. The novel slips into the Master’s point of view to convey his sense of betrayal at his old slave’s escape and his absolute belief in his own righteousness: “He had never wept, or doubted the divine right that sanctified his actions.”

The story mostly sticks close to the old slave, starting in the third person and shifting into the first person as he runs through the primeval woods, “penetrating into the cavern of ages.” It’s as if he’s traversing a mythological underworld, pursued by Cerberus in the form of the Master’s vicious mastiff. A few pages are even from the perspective of the mastiff, which is given equal billing in the original French title (”L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse”).

At not much more than 100 pages, this is a nightmarish novella that alternates between feeling like a nebulous allegory and a realistic escaped slave narrative. It can be a disorienting experience: like the slave, readers are trapped in a menacing forest and prone to hallucinations.

Luckily, the translator’s notes and afterword provide ample context for understanding the book’s place in Caribbean literature. This would make an excellent pairing with Gerty Dambury’s Guadeloupe-set “The Restless” or Jane Harris’ “Sugar Money,” which takes place in 1765 and also opens on a Martinique sugar plantation.

The lyricism of the writing and the brief glimpse back from the present day, in which an anthropologist discovers the slave’s remains and imagines the runaway back into life, give this book enduring power.


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