Do you like underdog stories? A scrappy protagonist that fights to overcome all odds? Did you wonder why everyone was so scared of that sweet puppy, Cujo? Then Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau is the book you’ve been waiting for.
When The Décharge Hits
The protagonist in Slave Old Man is never named. He is old and a slave. That is all anyone has needed to know about him for decades. He had never shocked anyone in the sugar cane fields until the night he bolted, filled with a restless energy the slaves called décharge. Chamoiseau describes attempts made by others on the plantation-slave and overseer alike—to make a friend out of the old man, a wise mentor maybe, at the very least a caricature of age. The ancient resisted all overtures, remaining impenetrable to all. As his master realizes when tracking him (with the aid of a hellish mastiff) through a terrifyingly fertile jungle:
Evidence: the Master saw nothing of him, in intimate memories, but a face of papaya and boredom, a large mute shadow half out of this world, a big silent beast. Yet, no hatred in him. Or menace. Or danger. But no acceptance. That was it. The vieux-négre had not what was done with him. Ever.
The old man does not need us to know his story, necessarily. His story is the island that remains whether we understand it or not. We are there as witnesses, with Patrick, to marvel at the the old slave’s strength and ingenuity. I found myself riveted to a rather simple story: old man runs, dog chases, unchanging scenery. Tell my cuticles what a simple story it was.
There is a point where Chamoiseau switches the old man’s voice from third-person to first-person and it as seamless and necessary as the key change in Hey Jude.
A Love Letter To Glissant
Born in Martinique (which is still not an independent state, btw) in 1953, Chamoiseau had only a handful of Martinican (particularly non-white) writers to look up to. Approximately twenty years before his birth, the political and literary movement Négritude swept the Islands. This movement called for the “valorization of black experience everywhere through ancestral ties to Africa” (Coverdale, Linda, pg. 126). Simply put, all things African were being venerated. Edouard Glissant, (another Martinican writer) raised the question in the 1980’s, ‘why can’t we venerate where we are? What we are?’ Soon Glissant was spearheading a movement he called Antillanité or “Caribbeanness.” Glissant was ready to celebrate what was unique to the Caribbean region; the a brutally violent enslaved past amid paradise or the mish-mash of languages that created Creole. Chamoiseau was eager to follow suit. Slave Old Man is a love letter to Glissant: his movement and his texts.
Are you familiar with Caribbean literature? Let me know in the comments below! I can’t wait to check out Glissant. If you enjoy this book review, Patrick Chamoiseau, or Caribbean literature please share this article.