Why This Linguistic Masterpiece on Slavery Should Be Your Next Read - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Reading this story compels you to help unravel its shape-shifting language.

By Andrew Blackman

Let’s face it: The literary world is full of hyperbolic comparisons, most of which don’t bear too much scrutiny. But Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau is a rare exception.

When you read in the blurb that Milan Kundera described the author as the “heir of Joyce and Kafka,” you could be forgiven a little eye-rolling. But as you work your way through this novel about an old man escaping a slave plantation on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, you begin to understand what Kundera meant. Like Joyce, Chamoiseau reconfigures language to suit his own purposes, seamlessly melding the literary with the colloquial. Like Kafka, he creates a world in which the absurd and the grotesque seem real, in which dreams and nightmares coalesce.

It’s worth reading this novel simply to see the ways in which language can be made loose and supple, shaped by capable hands into new, unusual forms. Chamoiseau is known for championing the literary possibilities of the Creole language, in which French is infused with new vocabulary and grammar both from the Caribbean and from the many African languages spoken by those brought there as slaves.

The pleasure of reading it lies in tracing symbols and metaphors, following references and paying attention to the subtle use of language.

In Slave Old Man, an additional layer of complexity is added: the translation of this unique voice into English. The translator, Linda Coverdale, has done a great job of making the references intelligible to English-speaking readers while conveying the stylistic complexity of the original. Often, she leaves the Creole phrases in italics, followed by English approximations (“yen-yen midges,” “ouélélé tumult,” etc.). Other words, like “flap,” meaning “suddenly,” are clear from their context (I jumped up flap, and fled at top speed). And then there are endnotes to disentangle the most obscure references.


Carl Bromley, editorial director at The New Press, says he was “utterly spellbound” when Anne-Solange Noble of Chamoiseau’s French publisher Gallimard first told him about the novel in Frankfurt a few years ago. He knew that translation would be difficult, but Coverdale convinced him to go ahead. “She wrote a memo about the novel and the challenge of translating it, and I think we all here at The New Press fell in love with her vision of the book,” Bromley says.

Readers who want a complex plot full of twists and turns will be disappointed. This is a novel whose complexity is of a different kind. The pleasure of reading it lies in tracing symbols and metaphors, following references and paying attention to the subtle use of language.

For example, a shifting narrative perspective sheds light on the main character’s story. The “slave old man” of the title starts out unnamed, anonymous, living a “faceless, locked-in life.” As he goes farther from the plantation, the descriptions shift: first to an “old slave man,” and then an “old man who had been a slave” and sometimes just an “old man” or “man.” Finally, after falling into a wellspring and almost drowning, he emerges into a first-person narrative, finally in control of his own story: “I opened my eyes wide …”

Despite receiving high praise in Europe (he also won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for his 1992 novel Texaco), Chamoiseau is still relatively unknown in the U.S. That may be set to change, however, with the recent English publication of Slave Old Man. If you want to read something fresh and different, this Martiniquan literary novel with its creative mishmash of languages, voices and styles won’t disappoint. Even if you don’t end up tracing all of its symbols, allusions and insights into Caribbean identity, you’ll still enjoy the timeless story of escape and reinvention that lies at its heart.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories