Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Longest Memory by Fred D'Aguiar

The Longest Memory tells the story of a pivotal event in the life of an antebellum Virginia plantation - the whipping to death of a young slave - from the perspectives of several different characters.

The aged slave Whitechapel is central to the narrative. He has learned the art of compliance, of accepting the slave's lot without complaint. For this he has earned the admiration and respect of the plantation owner, and acts as an elder to the slave population. For Whitechapel, existence, despite its sorrows, has become comfortable. In the context of the novel, Whitechapel is an ambigous character. He ultimately loses his status in the eyes of the slaves, for it is he who has revealed (following a promise of leniency) to the plantation owner the location of Chapel, the runaway slave, whom he regards as his son, but whose lineage is more complex. Chapel has committed one of the great sins of slavery. The plantation owner's daughter has taught him to read, and fired by this Promethean knowledge, his head becomes full of his own verses, and of visions of freedom.

I will avoid any further synopsis. This is a short book, imbued with the poetic sensibilities of its talented author, a Guyanese poet. Mercifully, D'Aguiar does not attempt to recreate the vernacular speech of the characters, but rather allows them to speak to us with a precise clarity well suited to the narrative. Despite its brevity, The Longest Memory speaks eloquently of the universally corrupting effect of slavery.