Reflecting on Patrick Chamoiseau’s ‘Slave Old Man’ and physical memories of the enslaved
We can go so far as to imagine the ruminations of the deceased if we care to consider their relationship with the natural world.
by Donnie Moreland
This essay contains spoilers for Patrick Chamoiseau’s 1997 novel, Slave Old Man
The final words of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man read, “Brother, I shouldn’t have, but I touched those bones.” Those bones being, “The clavicles. Some vertebrae. A few formless bits. Porous things. And a broken tibia…” Those bones, as are revealed to us, do—and don’t—belong to the novel’s protagonist, Old Syrup.
The l’esclave vieil homme, or “the slave old man” as he is referred to for much of his odyssey, while a vessel for remembering the trailing of maroons—fugitive Black slaves who escaped into the mountains of Jamaica—is Chamoiseau asking the reader, what are the memories of that which remains, both of body and ground? And in the story of this old man, Chamoiseau—more the bones he gives space to speak—offer an entryway into understanding the historical imagination as an archeological tool and a matter more of record than speculation, when translating the evidence of the unseen.
Slave Old Man is an incredibly physical novel. Physical, as in it buries itself in the natural world, offering robust detail in the description of even the most microscopic of organisms. Traditionally, I’d fall into some trope of critique here, suggesting that this is the old man’s world operating as another ancillary character, but these sentences offer more than general narrative technique.
Chamoiseau is arguing that, to know the elderly maroon as a member of physical history, we must consider his skin and why he itched, his allergies and why he sneezed, the smells of which he was attracted and how close he’d make himself daily to those distinctive odors.
Whatever tiresome work was undertaken to uncover—with verifiable accuracy—the botanical and entomological histories of Martinique is proven a necessity in positing Old Syrup as an archeological find as much as he is a character of fiction. Chamoiseau isn’t interested in what might have occurred, but what did occur considering what is gathered in knowledge of the convergence of space, time, migration and, in the case of Old Syrup, resistance.
In a moment where space between the old man and his potential captors is cut thin, Chamoiseau suggests that we can go so far as to imagine the ruminations of the deceased if we care to consider their relationship with the natural world. And for the maroons, a natural world which Chamoiseau argues corroborated their freedom.
“Here are the Acajous, armoured in grayish bark, whose powder has often closed my wounds; here are the woody flowers where parrots peck at the garlic taste of their flesh. Here are the Rose Laurels, long nervous foliage, hirsute, whitish, so stimulating in teas; I’d used it to soothe my eczema. Here are the Courbarils-the West Indian locusts-with deep red heartwood whose miracle is revealed in the hubs of varnish distilleries. Oh, the Gauiacums, lignum-vitates, more raide than rocks, soul of musky resin so good for my gout…They were all there, Bois-rivières, Pains-d’èpices, Gèni-pas, and if I did not see them, I could feel them coming up. Here are the breadfruit trees planted by the Maroons, and the Avocado trees that mark their trails; here are the Acacias bearers of knowledge; there are the the Ebony trees that anchor the axes of a strange saga. There they are, trees that the light clothes in secrets, or those that wrap themselves in a halo fait-noir: darkness. All came out of the earth with the same force, as from a staved-in belly. I wanted to wallow in this earth giving rise to so many strengths. My need for those strengths made the trees beauties. And this beauty allied both the earth and the sky, and the night and the day.”
What Chamoiseau accomplishes here, in storytelling is what scholar Katherine McKittrick argues in Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, as “black matters being spatial matters”.
According to McKittrick, “The history of black subjects in the diaspora is a geographic story that is, at least in part, a story of material and conceptual placements and displacements, segregations and integrations, margins and centers, and migrations and settlements. These spatial binaries, while certainly not complete or fully accurate, also underscore the the classificatory where of race. Practices and locations of racial domination (for example, slave ships, racial-sexual violence) and practices of resistance (for example, ship coups, escape routs, imaginary and real respatializations) also importantly locate whst Saidya Hartman calls “a striking contradiction” wherein objectification is coupled with black humanity/personhood.”
Old Syrup is navigating that which remained from persons unseen, and without official record, much as Chamoiseau is performing the task of imagining the bodily, and interior, existence of a maroon of origins unknown. As for both parties—across time—it is an inquirous observation of space that allow us access to incorruptible histories.
Chamoiseau goes so far as to imagine geography as a recorder of us—stones literally carrying with them the details of yesterday for us to not only decipher, but summon as our own memory. Following a critical altercation, Old Syrup finds himself against a stone which he describes as possessing the “dreams” of parallel migrations, in a time before, by Caribs at war with French occupation.
“The Stone dreams. It beguiles me with its dreams. I press myself against it, with greedy hands. My mind abandons its marks. It is impossible that I speak to it, that I myself am talking to a stone. Or dreaming with it.Yes, our dreams intermingle, a tie-up of seas, savannas, Grandes-terres and isles, attacks and wars, dark ship’ holds and migrant wanderings over a hundred thousand times a thousand years…The Stone is Ameridian. These people had inhabited this country for an et-cetera of time, and carved stones this way into the Great Woods…The Stone does not speak to me; it dreams materialize in my mind the speech of those dying ones I had forsaken. The Stone is many peoples. Peoples of whom only it remains. Their only memory, repository of a thousand memories. Their only word , great with all words. Cry of their cries. The ultimate matter of these existences.”
It is here that we begin to see the novel sitting at an intersection of fiction, yes, but also a very real assignment in physical excavation of spaces where Black footsteps—even the most hidden—and “unassuming” grounds collide. This revealed to us, even in the initial meeting of Chamoiseau and who we would come to regard as the “old man slave” (a subtle, but transformative, evolution from his earlier title as “slave old man” as documented by translator Linda Coverdale).
As Chamoiseau confesses, “One day, imagining the broken tibia, I thought of the negres marrons. That ravine was a fine refuge for a runaway slave. My negre marron would have gone through the Great Woods, would have been wounded, would have come to die right over that stone. I felt what he would have experienced in that place, so far from everything, by that stone with those carvings which beggard all imagination… I thus realized that one day I would write a story, this story, molded from the great silences of our mangled stories, out intermingled memories. About an old man slave running through the Great Woods, not toward freedom: toward the immense testimony of his bones.”
As we, descendants, consider the mysteries of missing names in our makeup, bodies buried beneath grounds unmarked and indecipherable records, faces of the past become blurred. But in the pages of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man—and between his words—we are reminded to ask of the spaces where our stories intercede, in locations “unremarkable” to the geographic inquiries of others: What might have occurred here?
But more than that, making note of such event, the stories of displaced human remains. Especially considering that the Earth keeps the score.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.