by Rana Asfour
'Slave Old Man' by Patrick Chamoiseau recently won The Best Translation Award for fiction for 2019. Translated from the French and Creole by Linda Coverdale and published by The New Press in 2018.
This 176-page novel tells the story of a very old slave in the Martinique who up and escapes his master's plantation into the nearby rainforest, which Martinicans on the plantation believe is rife with the spirits and 'zombies' of all those who have gone before.
Pursued by the master's ferocious 'pathologically alive' mastiff, the novella not only records this hopeless escape but also serves to remind readers of the demonic cruelty of the slave trade in which injustices continue to cry out well beyond the graves.
Along the very short span of the escape, all three characters - the old slave, the master and the mastiff - experience a mystical metamorphosis induced by the unforgiving oppressive environment of the rainforest that transforms them forever.
Here's what the fiction jury for the award had to say: “In turns biblical and mythical, Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man is a powerful reckoning with the agonies of the past and their persistence into the present. It is a modern epic, a history of the Caribbean, and a tribute to Creole languages, all told through the story of one slave old man. Linda Coverdale’s translation sings as she beautifully renders language as lush and vividly alive as the wilderness the old man plunges into in his flight to freedom.
It is dreamy yet methodical prose, vivid, sensual but also a touch strange, forcing you to slow down and reread. Thoughtful, considered footnotes provide added context and explanation, enriching the reader’s understanding of this powerful and subversive work of genius by a master storyteller. Slave Old Man is a thunderclap of a novel. His rich language, brilliant in Coverdale’s English, evokes the underground forces of resistance that carry the slave old man away. It’s a novel for fugitives, and for the future.”
'Where all light and all shadow dissolve, there is an evoyer-monter: Go! An elemental will-to-live' -- 'Slave Old Man' by Patrick Chamoiseau
Absolutely all of it. Found it a wonderful feat of translation. My advice is to read the Translator's Note at the beginning of the book as well as the notes at the back of the book to get a deeper understanding of the Carribean history. These notes are like stories within stories and add to the fairytale overtone of the novel.
Although I'm not usually a fan of switching tenses in a novel - which happens abruptly on page 66 of this novel - I found the decision completely justifiable and totally fitting for circumstance. It was so well executed and timed that the reader knows that there is no way the novel could have proceeded in any other way.
Beautiful book cover.
What didn't work:
Maybe the fact that I had to turn back to the notes instead of having them as a footnote on the same page. However, this is so minor and did in no way diminish my enjoyment of the novel or its flow.
Who would I recommend it to?
For readers who enjoy world literature in translation as well as for those curious about the history of slavery in the Martinique. Also great for patient readers for this is not a fast read despite the novel's short length. It contains detailed descriptive paragraphs on the natural world as well as streams of consciousness.