by Zabe Bent
Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man, or L’Esclave Vieil Homme et Le Molosse, is a compelling tale of pursuit and escape by an elderly slave on a Martinique plantation. Through this journey, we see a profound transformation not just into the soul of Chamoiseau’s protagonist, this maroon, but in the colonial and elemental world around him. The result is an enchanting read that delves into questions of culture, identity, humanity, and language that are still relevant today. The French novel was released in 1997 and translated by Linda Coverdale for the New Press in 2018. NB: the majority of this interview is translated from French.
ZB: Some have called Slave Old Man your strongest work since Texaco (1992, which won the Prix Goncourt). Texaco was translated many years ago. What does it mean to have Slave Old Man translated now? How does it complement your collection at this point in time?
PC: I think it a good thing that this book is translated now because it explores our contemporary reality through an archetype of the Caribbean and American slave situation. The old slave who maroons in the woods and who, for hours or even days, is pursued by a mastiff, it is a primordial scene, it is part of the imagination of the whole of America plantations. This moment is first, the attempt to return to Africa, to the lost country, Africa represents then the place where one finds one’s lost humanity and thus where one finds the meaning to be given to the life and the world. Only this return will prove most often impossible for the slaves who tried it, and the Molosse who represents the death and the dehumanization was more often victorious. But there is an overcoming of this situation in which the mastiff cannot be victorious. It is this overtaking that this book tells. The old man slave who flees no longer seeks Africa, but runs with all his might towards himself, towards his own reality, towards what he has become, that slavery could not reach. His race becomes an act of radical renaissance. His marronnage, his escape, is not a mere resistance but a true creation or re-creation of himself: a becoming. It is by becoming that the slaves of the West Indies and the Americas managed to conquer death and dehumanization. This becoming found its creative vitality in dance, song, and music.
ZB: The two of you have worked together before, and Slave Old Man was written long ago. Why make this book available to the English-speaking audience now?
PC: It is not a formal decision, just a combination of circumstances and opportunities. This book is more than ever relevant: individually and collectively, we must all be reborn in the face of the major challenges and economic oppressions of the contemporary world.
LC: The simplest—and purely personal—answer is that I couldn’t get my hands on it before. The first Chamoiseau I ever read was Chronique des sept misères (1986), for a reader report, and I sat up with delight, such writing! Clearly a wonderful new voice, and when the publishing house offered to buy it if I would translate it, I hated to have to say no—but I wasn’t anywhere near ready to jump into Martinique out of nowhere. With Au temps de l’antan (1988), I began to learn to handle both the language and the terroir, so to speak. Baby steps in creole-inflected text for me, with children’s stories, but they are clever stories of survival in a colonized land, already imbued with the mystique of the Storyteller that colors all Chamoiseau’s writing, both in fiction and his essays. There were a few more before I was ready. Each time the bar is higher, but the terrain is more familiar, so the challenge can again be met and the beauty of the work in its humanity and wisdom can survive. Excelsior.
So, why Slave Old Man now? I’d read L'Esclave vieil homme et le molosse when it came out in 1997, and it was breathtaking, a creation myth of such heart and purity. But it had already been bought over here, so that was that. Then The New Press returned from a buying expedition with L'empreinte à Crusoé (2012) for a reader report, but a casual remark revealed that L'Esclave vieil homme et le molosse was back in play after almost twenty years (my second second chance at a Chamoiseau treasure!) so I pounced on it. And then the fun began.
The other answer to the question “Why now?”: this book is infused with the spirit of time, and holocaust, and man’s inhumanity to man, and the heroism of great souls in surprising places, and the sacredness of art that, like the Stone, keeps life alive even in death. Slave Old Man has the sublime arc of a rainbow, but not the one God sent promising never to send another flood to destroy all life on earth, no: that destruction has already begun, and humanity opened these floodgates with climate change. This time the sweet mercy needed to stave off what’s coming must come from us: if ever a book was timely, this novel is. All the faults, all the injustices, all the oppressions and destructions our species embodies flourish in the institution of slavery, and when the old slave breaks free to run back in time and into nature to shelter in the Stone he becomes, with all his imperfections, a flash of hope, “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” The rainbow leads not to a treacherous pot of gold, but to the Stone, a vision of chaos, acceptance, and redemption.
ZB: Slave Old Man is separated into seven chapters, seven sections, and I cannot help but see this as a nod to your work, The Chronicle of Seven Sorrows. Was this intentional?
PC: This book is a concentration of symbols of all humanities, of all civilizations. In his course, the old man slave goes back in a certain way to all the imaginations of the peoples of the world, beginning with those of Africa and the Americas. The number seven is also a symbolic figure that resonates in many spiritualities. In fact, our old man runs towards his own humanity, will rebuild it in the presence, and with all the cultures and civilizations of the world.
ZB: The subject of this story transforms himself throughout his escape. In some cases this is immediate, as when he disappears into the trees. In other cases it seems more gradual, and his surroundings, or his observation and language about his surroundings change with him. The effect is beautiful and haunting. Tell us a bit more about that decision, and how you structured it through the writing or the sections or both.
PC: It is a symbolic rebirth. The slave of African origin dies to be reborn to another state of his own humanity. He is no longer only in the face of his culture, of his language of the gods, but in the face of all cultures, all languages, all the gods. He does not return to his past, he plunges into his becoming and is reborn in himself and to himself. The wrenching of slave trade, slavery and colonial atrocities ejected him from his community of origin to bring him to the face of the world, of all the flows that come from the world: he is now in Relation in the sense understood by the poet Edouard Glissant.The metamorphosis of the old man is both physical and symbolic. The two shots mix in a sort of musical composition, a drum and jazz polyrhythm.
ZB: In this book, the old man experiences what some reviews have described as a Kafka-esque absurdism. How much does this world borrow from local or African folklore and traditions, vs your own generation of absurdism?
PC: The old man slave is experiencing a veritable chaos in which ancient Africa mixes with Amerindian cultures and almost all the cultures of the world through their main symbols. All of this mixes in a non-rational and completely unpredictable way, in a kind of “chaos-opera”. With the slave trade, American slavery and colonization, the peoples, cultures, and civilizations of the world have been interconnected in a massive, constant and irreversible way. Contemporary culture is a culture of cultures. Contemporary civilization is a civilization of civilizations. Today, each of us must realize his becoming, ensure his fullness of consciousness and will, by organizing his connection with all cultures, languages, symbols of the world. We now live in this vast flow that Edouard Glissant called: Relation
[the relational belonging of all things]
. The slave old man pursued by the mastiff symbolizes in a way our contemporary situation.
ZB: You speak widely about creolisation, as well as the difficulty and responsibilities of writing in a creole space--creating a language that bears witness to all languages. You have described the effect on writing as a sort of “langage de la langue”, where the style impacts the grammar--creating a grimace or a smile, depending on how it is used. The translation of this work, as well as others, it mimics the language of islands like Dominica and St Lucia, which have English for an official language but speak a French-based Creole. How does this piece fit into your descriptions of creolisation with that in mind?
PC: It tells the trajectory of creolization. During the Slave Trade, Africans were torn from the continent and plunged into the hell of plantations where they were somehow “decomposed” in an anthropological magma where many cultures and civilizations were found. They have been ejected from the single-rooted identity to force them to be reborn into an identity based on the relationship that one maintains with the diversity of the world. My old man slave is not heading towards his African past, he is running towards becoming in Relation.
ZB: You’ve also described your writing process as playing jazz on piano, tapping the keys of French and Creole to create a form of music. Over the years, have you developed a process for this way of writing, or is a more of a feeling? Has your process changed much since creating this beautiful piece of music, Slave Old Man?
PC: No it’s still the same practice. In slave plantations the resistance of our ancestor slaves was first with dancing, singing and music. Resistance by transcendence creation. Music is great when it is precipitated in literature because it allows us to escape the linguistic absolutes and to enter the infinite languages of the Relation.
ZB: This book, and your career, demonstrates a dedication to maintaining the culture and language of Martinique. The creole of Martinique is not widely taught in local schools. How does that affect your ability to write in this language and to work with a translator? Or in your case, Linda, as a translator?
LC: Chamoiseau writes in French. His French. His theoretical works outline superbly, and his fictions/memoirs elegantly demonstrate his self-education in the politics/psychology/economics/aesthetics etc. of créolité, but he does not write everything in creole, he writes with it, so to speak. Or perhaps within it. He has explained in many different ways how, in the gross categories of style and content, he writes in the service of créolité. But his mission is to reach the world, and through the French language he does that, by generating within his own mind, at the source of his thought and feeling, his vision of a creole world in French, not just in the elements of actual Creole that can appear as if spontaneously as he tells his stories. He has said countless times, in countless ways, that he channels his thought through whatever word arrangement he wants, and devil take the hindmost. Chamoiseau speaks Chamoiseau! Creole words are obvious, but at the other end of this continuum can be an innocent word with a certain aura that turns out to be a reference to something that suddenly adds another dimension to the text. Words, foods, characters, plants, what-have-you will lead, IF noticed, and IF followed up successfully, to treasure troves of extra significance and adventure. (Hence all my notes to the novel.) And there is always the inflection of creole here on what any writer does in a native language when he or she does something new with it, and that’s called poetry.
A translator needs to decide, as an individual, what faithfulness to the text means. My ideal is to give the reader in English as close an approximation as possible to what the most enlightened, informed French reader would read. My truest definition of translating is that I melt the French down in my brain and recast it, repeatedly if needed, into English, until my version cannot be reworked by me into anything more “like” what the original is to me.
Chamoiseau famously favors leaving some mystery in the text, that otherness without which his work would not be his. I think I can safely say that Slave Old Man is suffused with otherness. In the sneaky division of sound and sense, “Je sacrifie tout à la musique de la phrase”: in a showdown, for him the melody of the translated phrase is paramount. Somewhere in my towering stack of Caribbean Stuff, I still have the pages of creole words and their meanings he kindly sent out to his translators decades ago. Many months of research and translating brought me at last to what I felt was a proper shore, and that’s that. I hope Slave Old Man continues to astonish and enchant readers with this glorious creation by Chamoiseau.
PC: Creole is a living language, in Martinique everyone speaks it every day, but it is a dominated and especially threatened language. It is not taught systematically, and its lexicon is gradually forgotten by younger generations. The language I use in my novels mixes Creole and French. It mixes the lexicon and the imaginary of these two languages.
Languages no longer have to fight inside us. They must join together and give us the opportunity to create our singular language. Languages are not divinities that we must adore, but materials offered to the necessities of our expression. Today, the world put in relation offers to each of us, and to writers even more, all the languages of the world.
On the other hand, no language can save itself alone, no language can save itself from sinking by letting others die or by dominating them. The contemporary world, which is the world of Relation, must be built in all languages of the world, and with all of them. All languages must be safeguarded, taught, valued, in the presence of all the other languages of the world. Glissant often said: I write in the presence of all the languages of the world. He refused all linguistic absolutes. In general, I explain to my translators that the most important thing for me is the music of the sentence, I can sacrifice the meaning of a sentence to the music of words and verbs. I build my language first in a musical way.
Born in Martinique, Patrick Chamoiseau is the author of Texaco, which won the Prix Goncourt and was a New York Times Notable Book, as well as Creole Folktakes, among other works. Linda Coverdale has a Ph.D. in French Studies from the Johns Hopkins University and has translated more than seventy books. A Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, she has won the 2004 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2006 Scott Moncrieff Prize, and received the French-American Foundation’s 2008 Translation Prize for Jean Echenoz’s Ravel (The New Press). She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Originally from Jamaica, Zabe Bent is an urban planner living in Brooklyn. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction.