Slavery and History in Chamoiseau’s L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse

This is a presentation script prepared for Christopher Miller’s course Slavery and its Aftermath in French and Francophone Literature.

L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse is a novel written by Martinican author and 1992 Prix Goncourt winner Patrick Chamoiseau, published originally by Gallimard in 1997. The novel tells the story of an old man who, under the spell of a mythical ailment known only as the décharge, flees captivity into the woods surrounding his master’s plantation. He is thereafter chased by the Master and his mastiff, the rest of the novel recounting the triptych of these three characters’ inevitable boundedness to one another. While there is so much to be said about this short text, my presentation today will attempt to situate Chamoiseau’s novel within a political and aesthetic discourse on history in relation to Martinique’s curious position within the French nationalist archipelago. When we read a novel like L’esclave vieil homme, we are not only reading a novel about a past which has been, within the French cultural and national memory, willfully repressed and unquestionably overlooked, but we are also, in our act of reading, contributing to a counternarrative, a counter-history which brings into questions contextualizes, resists and defies the dominant narrative, that thing which we call History with a capital H. My presentation will look exactly at the question of L’esclave vieil homme as a literary object which attempts to reconfigure the ways we ought to think about French History with a capital H as a historical imposition which subjects of les vieilles colonies in particular must endure. In doing so, I draw broad strokes around the complexities and intricacies of a particularly ultramarin possibility for postcolonialism, given that colonialism in the Antilles and Reunion never formally ended.

In sum, I seek to look at the form of L’esclave vieil homme as a reconfiguration of the past, as a means of producing a literary archive to fill what Françoise Vergès calls “les troubles de mémoire” which haunt the French Republic. While such a topic is obviously not discussable in so short a time frame, I will at base point towards several ideas which I hope that we may broach during our seminar discussion of this novel.

Vergès in her essay “Troubles de mémoire » responds to a national crisis of identity within French metropolitan life over the repressed history of the slave trade and French slavery, historical facts which rarely figure in French intellectual life. It was only at the end of the 20th century that France finally began to reconcile with its early colonial past, although such a reckoning has been only towards the end of vindicating France of its political and social ills, of the social murder of enslaved Africans and the physical murders of indigenous Caribbean peoples in the New World. Vergès points to the “national myths” of the French Republic, the likes of which attenuate France’s role in the slave trade, colonialism and slavery, thus producing a History with a capital H in which the on-the-ground realities, the lived experiences of the colonized – be them Africans, Antilleans, Vietnamese, Indian, etc. – are effaced, rewritten. The word “myth” here is quite useful for thinking about Chamoiseau’s novel, primarily because LVH responds to the seemingly human need for an origin myth (and the impossibility of origin myths within cultures of forced construction, such as those in the New World) by offering an alternative; the conte. Whereas Vergès alludes to myth as an assemblage of social truisms and discourses which, through nationalist ideology and “amnesiac narratives”, become social Truth with a capital T, Chamoiseau understands myth to be oppositional to the conte, primarily because the myth is rooted in an effuse, often magical and typically ahistorical understanding of the past. Myths are expositional; they offer a reason for the way things are. Yet, the conte, as Chamoiseau told Maeve McCusker, is something “very particular,” a snippet of the past which produces a history with a lowercase H. The conte for Chamoiseau therefore serves as a text whose existence calls into question the official narrative, whose brevity, whose simultaneous lack of specificity and unfettered applicability, provides new lines of flight from the assemblage which is the official record of French history with a capital H.

            Now, let’s talk about the text. L’esclave vieil homme is perhaps the most formally experimental novel we have read, being more akin, as Hal Wylie writes, to a poem like the Cahiers than Tituba or Le Quatrième Siècle. We are not provided with a party of characters with whom we can construct a picture of the past from the ground; we only have three principal characters, none of which are given personal identities. They are all referred to by their role within a social web in which the only means of meaningful signification can be made by way of slavery – the master, his slave, his dog. Immediately, the refusal to provide personal histories for any of the characters, the forced rupture which they have from their pasts, other than their relationship to one another, and to the îles-à-sucres signals a kind of writing practice which I think we should discuss. Although I would not argue that providing names for characters intimates a kind of “realism” which unnamed characters cannot possess, I do suggest that the refusal to give these characters lives outside of their condition highlights L’esclave vieil homme’s formal intervention. This novel is not a historical novel in the sense that it reproduces the past for the consumption of the ever-present reader, but it is historical primarily because it attempts to ground a past which has been effaced and lost within a history, even if, as we see at the end of the novel, it remains a history of loss, or in Myriam Cottias’ words, a history of silence.

            Let’s begin with the title. Immediately, the title “The Slave Old Man and the Mastiff” as its English upcoming translation puts it, is reminiscent of folktales transmitted from parent to child. That these short stories have been the study of anthropologists trying to piece together the mythically lost past of New World Black people is not lost on Chamoiseau, although it is not something that directly interests him, given his markedly indifferent position towards the idea of an African cultural or anthropological truth to an inherently Black but non-African social situation in the Antilles. The title reminds me of folktales, which are sometimes titled in a similar fashion of “The X and the Y.” Here, as in many folktales by the enslaved, one force attempts to circumvent the hegemony or tyranny of the other, although there is no subterfuge here; Chamoiseau lays bear what has been behind the negro folktales which serves as the first literary works of the New World.

            I’d also like to point to the composition of the text from a narrative perspective. We are informed, at the very of the end of the text, that the narrator is the same narrator from Chamoiseau’s earlier novel Texaco, known as the marqueur de paroles. That the conte is an oral form of literature transmitted from person to person is contextualized by the novel’s mediations of the French language. Hal Wylie unceremoniously refers to this as faux creole, but I would argue that LVM features a markedly Martinican French, a stylistic intervention akin to E. Kamau Brathwaite’s theory of nation language. The oral nature of the narrator’s speech is contrasted by the historical reality of the slave’s own nebulous linguistic status (we know he speaks creole, but we do not know if he speaks any other languages), and only melts further when the slave, upon having his metaphysical rebirth as a marron, “renames himself,” according to Doris Garraway “je.” Yet, I highlight this question about the language of LVM in order to point to the means by which this text serves as a Martinican conte-fondateur, as Chamoiseau calls it. Given that history, especially within the French language, is bound to the idea of the written as the perpetual, the French language serves as the primary vehicle for literary production, although the spectral presence of creole remains déjà-là, making LVM an example of a minor literature in opposition to the dominant narrative of French history and cultural fact.

These are of course not an exhaustive list of the formal interventions that LVM makes as a novel, as a counter-text, as a literary archive – I could go on and on about how the novel’s representations of the past, which Marie-Christine Rochmann writes is without any means of locating chronologically, or how the last chapter “Les os” completely breaks with the narrative, but I’ll leave these questions to our forthcoming discussion. What I would like to highlight, however, in closing my presentation, is precisely how this novel makes us think about French slavery for one, but also History with a capital H as products of the French state, yes, but also the French people. In what ways do the collective amnesia of the French people represent a significant divergence between the French people (itself an amalgam of other “peoples”) and the French state which acts ostensibly on their behalf and for their common good? Does the amnesia which LVM attempts to treat serve as a means of reestablishing a unity whose point of rupture remains, at least from the postcolonial perspective, the  Columbian encounter and the slave trade? Does this novel’s master-béké allow us to think about the human tragedy of slavery as not simply the trade, purchase and sale of human beings labeled Black / nègre / negro, but as an ideological transaction as well as a material one? The master, lost in the grand-bois, without his instruments of terror, begins perhaps for the first time to feel a sense of profound existential confusion over his role in the slave economy. He wonders why the slave old man would flee, given that he has provided him with all he could want, that he has built such an affinity for the man, assigning him the most difficult job on the Habitation. How do we read this character as emblematic of the French people who both inaugurated slavery and obliterated its history.

Image: from Fabrice Monteiro, Marrons

Bibliography

Campbell, Tanya. “Nous Sommes Tous Poursuivis Par Un Monstre: Postcolonial Hauntologies in the Works of Chamoiseau, Ollivier and Haneke.” International Journal of Francophone Studies 13, no. 1 (June 1, 2010): 79–90. https://doi.org/10.1386/ijfs.13.1.79/7.

Garraway, Doris L. “Toward a Creole Myth of Origin: Narrative, Foundations and Eschatology in Patrick Chamoiseau’s ‘L’esclave Vieil Homme et Le Molosse.’” Callaloo 29, no. 1 (2006): 151–67. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3805700.

Girondin, Jean-Claude, ed. Nouveaux Regards Sur l’esclavage. Paris: Empreinte temps présent, 2015.

Halloran, Vivian Nun. Exhibiting Slavery: The Caribbean Postmodern Novel as Museum. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009. http://muse.jhu.edu/books/9780813928685.

Ildem, Arzu Eternel. “Le Mythe Du Nègre Marron.” Dalhousie French Studies 86 (2009): 29–36. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40838027.

McCusker, Maeve, and Patrick Chamoiseau. “De La Problématique Du Territoire à La Problématique Du Lieu: Un Entretien Avec Patrick Chamoiseau.” The French Review 73, no. 4 (2000): 724–33. https://www.jstor.org/stable/398607.

Milne, Lorna. “Metaphor and Memory in the Work of Patrick Chamoiseau.” L’Esprit Créateur 43, no. 1 (2003): 90–100. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26288668.

Rochmann, Marie-Christine. L’esclave fugitif dans la littérature antillaise: sur la déclive du morne. Karthala, 2000.

Wylie, Hal. Review of Review of L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse, by Patrick Chamoiseau. World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (1997): 852–53. https://doi.org/10.2307/40153468.

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