The Testimony of Bones

Patrick Chamoiseau, Slave Old Man: A Novel, trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: New Press, 2018); 176 pages; ISBN: 978-1620972953 (hardcover)

• June 2019

Patrick Chamoiseau’s L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse (1997), translated in 2018 as Slave Old Man, importantly embodies notions of créolité that Chamoiseau has promoted throughout his career. Créolité is a literary movement influenced by Édouard Glissant’s antillanité, which recognizes the Caribbean as a linguistically and culturally heterogenous space. Chamoiseau’s nod to Glissant is very clear. He begins each cadence, that is, each chapter of his novel, with lines from Glissant’s writings. There are seven chapters. Their titles each seem to relate to the old man’s development, for example, “Matter” signifies insentience, while “Alive” indicates life in him. This narrative structure also recalls the Bible, with “Matter,” the first chapter, being Genesis, and “Bones,” the final one, being Revelations. In the first six chapters, “Matter” to “The Stone,” the story of a Messianic figure is told. However, a John the Revelator figure narrates “Bones” and no longer tells the tale of the Messianic old man but that of “spirit,” that is, the influence of hi/stories that reflect in old bones.

Slave Old Man is a folktale about a slave who runs away from a Martinican plantation after being “bleached out” of his life, stripped of his memories and selves (7). Chamoiseau, in this narrative, seamlessly melds Martinican Creole with Standard French to create an organic, living, breathing language that moves as the protagonist does. In essence, the words run with the old man, uninhibited by inconvenient pauses of commas. This allows readers to experience the critical nature of the slave’s run. Also, the images used in the fiction produce in readers an almost visceral reaction. Their senses come alive with the old man and they are able to feel everything he feels. Literary translator Linda Coverdale has attempted to maintain this sense by leaving original Creole words while also translating them in the text. This makes things clearer for English readers (e.g., “ouélélé-tumult”), although it may be redundant for those who understand the Creole.

An omniscient narrator, who is inspired by old bone fragments, relates the tale; he initially tells readers that he is telling “a story” but then later refers to it as “a history,” which indicates an entanglement of these two terms. It is important to note that the French histoire means both a story and a history.

As the slave old man’s story is told, his lack of agency becomes apparent. He surrenders his “selves” in order to be a “good” slave: “He must live self-contained to control his fits of décharge” (31). To shirk the desire to run away, he yields his “selves” to slavery, to his master. Yet sometimes when tales are told on the plantation, something stirs deep inside him, indicating that his forgotten selves are still present. Despite his plantation experience bleaching his memories, his selves, he makes a significant run. Recalling Jesus’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the old man is bombarded with visions of the past during his run, and like Jesus he finds them too burdensome to carry, the weight of knowledge being too heavy for one man. Yet the Messiah must complete his mission despite knowing that his conclusion is death, at least a physical one, since the spirits/stories in his bones will live on.

The storyteller promises that while relating the tale, he will tell “everything [he] knows about this” (27). However, in the chapter called “Solar,” the taleteller either loses control of the narrative or the old man begins to inhabit him. Either way, the old man regains his agency and begins to relate his own story.

Prior to this, the old man goes through stages of metamorphosis evoking Kafka’s own mythic tale. On entering the Great Woods, he leaves behind the “slave” identity and becomes, simply, “the old man.” He is then symbolically disassembled in order to be infused with memories of the past, and later reassembled.

Nevertheless, what propels him into proper selfhood is his symbolic baptism. The old man tumbles into a wellspring and sinks to the bottom, and when he is about to surrender to death, he regains the will to live. He fights his way out and emerges into the sunlight, where he reclaims his identity and is now able to see things clearly. The old man, in the spring’s depths, buries his bleached-out persona and arises as a new creature, filled with knowledge, filled with “an evangelical feeling” (65). He is a newborn son.

After his baptism, the old man encounters stumbling blocks, mangrove crabs and a serpent, which could have possibly cut short his life. He, however, triumphs in order to be transformed into “the living word.” He reaches a Stone in a ravine, which is a vessel of time and histories. It is on this sacred Stone that the old man’s flesh becomes spirit. As he relinquishes his flesh, the taleteller takes over narration. But before he does so, the old man says, “My saliva tastes like dawn,” which implies truth, rebirth, the resurrection into eternal stories, and the leaving behind of bones as a new testament  (107).

The slave’s journey is pivotal but so is that of the mastiff, the molosse that pursues him. The animal arrives on the plantation via ship, “that void of a voyage,” and it seems to mirror the old man (17). In fact, the narrator states that the slave old man “rediscover[s] in the mastiff the catastrophe inhabiting him,” and the mastiff “sees itself bound to this old man slave” (31, 32). It stands to reason, then, that despite the mastiff’s singular purpose to hunt down the old man, he too has an evangelical experience in the Great Woods. He literally follows in the old man’s footsteps: he too is baptized in the wellspring, encounters the Stone and the divine transformation of the old man, and returns to his master, forever changed.

The mastiff is indeed representative of the bleached experience of the slave on the plantation. As the old man attempts to reclaim himself through a mythical process of remembering, knowing, and understanding, the monster that was him, and is him, continues to pursue him. Its aim is to return him to his placid, obedient state. Nevertheless, the mastiff experiences his own spiritual enlightenment.

When the mastiff reaches the Stone and finds the old man, its story becomes part of the bones’ testimony. They tell the tale of the slave old man as well as “a thousand stories come from Africa, a thousand narratives brought back from forgotten Amerindians, from the Master himself and, of course, from the Mastiff” (29). The tale of the slave old man and the mastiff reminds readers, specifically those of Caribbean origin, of themselves and the many stories/histories that inhabit their bones.

Consequently, Slave Old Man contests a singular, reductive story of the Caribbean and demonstrates a richness of language and identities that inhabit both land and people. The text helps readers cultivate a more profound understanding of themselves as well as the complex nature of the Caribbean. Through the mythic experiences of the slave and the mastiff, Chamoiseau activates unremembered stories in us and charges us all to tell them, even through our bones.

 

 

Malica S. Willie is a St. Lucian writer and researcher whose interests lie in postcolonial/Caribbean and disability studies. She has focused mainly on existentialism and Garth St. Omer in her research and has published peer-reviewed articles and a chapter in a critical volume.