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The Longest Memory Paperback – 6 Jul 1995
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"A haunting novel whose brevity and directness belie the depths of tragedy it plumbs." (Aida Edemariam The Guardian (London))
"D'Aguiar marks his accomplished arrival as a novelist with this compelling and compassionate work" (Sean Coughlan The Times)
"A short book that speaks volumes about slavery... Keeping his page taut with compression and compassion, D'Aguiar makes The Longest Memory hard to forget" (Peter Kemp Sunday Times)
"This deceptively simple book resonates long after it is finished" (Paula Burnett New Statesman and Society)
‘A gripping lyric exploration of the life of Whitechapel, a slave on an 18th century Virginia plantation… a brilliant – and beautiful – achievement.’ Independent on SundaySee all Product description
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Top customer reviews
The main voice is that of Whitechapel, tormented and guilt-ridden but still very dignified, describing the events of his son’s death. These disparate elements, presented in thirteen short chapters, are very well integrated into a whole that is much greater than their sum and offers differing perspectives on slavery that are the equal of writing by Toni Morrison.
The focus is on events at the beginning of the 19th-century when Chapel made a failed attempt to escape, received 200 lashes and, as a result, died. By informing on his son’s escape, his father’s position within the slave community is changed forever, the previous respect being replaced by ostracism. His only request to the reader and those around him being ‘Don’t make me remember. I forget as hard as I can.’
The opening of the story describes Chapel’s flogging and death by the sadistic overseer and then it widens out to describe the events leading up to the escape attempt and the ways in which lives on the plantation have been affected. In addition to the conventional voices of masters and slaves, the author introduces significant nuances – the slave owner who tries to follow an enlightened path in the face of animosity and ridicule [motivated by fear] from fellow owners, a slave who believes that serving his master faithfully would in turn result in fair treatment, and a cook who overcomes rape to find a period of happiness with husband and son. Even the relationship between a slave and his master’s daughter, which so often can be formulaic and trivialised, is here presented with great delicacy. The effect of the narrative is to let each character step forward, in a spotlight, to describe what they saw, what they did and how they feel about Chapel’s death.
Having been taught to read and write in secret because such knowledge threatened the master/slave relationship and was severely punished, Chapel’s ambition is of 'writing verses for a living'. How he goes about this and the responses of his parents and the plantation owner when his secret is discovered are reflected in his poetry. Describing his father’s life unshakable belief he writes ‘There are two types of slave, son, the first/Learns from mistakes which earn him whip and fist,/The second listens when he is told the facts,/Sees what works and what does not, then acts,’. Unlike his father, Chapel is the former kind.
The chronological shifting, which some reviews have found confusing, helps the reader to concentrate on what is being said; otherwise, being so short, this book might be read too quickly with some of its nuances and being lost. The fictional editorials from ‘The Virginian’, between 1809-10, allow the reader to consider the views of its white, Christian readers and the fear that they have of any vision of slaves being freed or treated sympathetically. As for intermarriage – ‘what will become of the offspring from these heinous alliances? Where is their place in these States when they see themselves as our equal and feel it too because the blood courses through their veins?’
Right at its end, Whitechapel sums up his life, shattered and broken, by thinking ‘My head is too heavy for these shoulders. Eyes that have seen too much for one body, rest. Mouth that has kept too much to itself, utter. Night and day this mouth refuses to speak; cannot begin to speak; has too much to say. The mouth turns down. All the things it has never managed to say have soured there.’
Unsurprisingly, the author is also a poet who was born in Guyana – his writing is compact, psychologically probing and lyrical even when the incidents he describes are gut-wrenching.
The story focuses on a slave called Chapel. Chapel is of dual heritage after the rape of his slave mother by the plantation overseer, Sanders. Issues and events are conveyed through the memory of the slave who takes Chapel as his son, namely Whitechapel. The slave Whitechapel lives a long life spanning two generations of his master's family so the story covers events over a long period of time. Although we are meant to take it that events are conveyed through Whitechapel's recollections, D'Aguiar nonetheless allows the main characters to present their views of the key events. We then have multiple narrators, narrating events from their point of view. Some of the key events are: Chapel's parentage, a developing mutual love between Chapel and Lydia, the daughter of the plantation owner, Chapel's education through Lydia and his developing free spirit, his escape from the plantation and beating to death by the overseer who happens to be his half brother.
This is a novel in which I think that the reader is required to bring some knowledge and experience of reading the slave novel because the issues and ramification of slavery are conveyed subtly and through symbolism at times. For example, D'Aguiar reminds us of the ownership of slaves by having the main character named after his master, Mr Whitechapel, and Whitechapel in turn names his son Chapel. Then there are the beatings by the overseer which in turn is imitated by the slaves on their children in order to teach them their station in life. There is also the blossoming love between the young slave, Chapel, and the slave mater's daughter, Lydia. A love that was highly taboo and of course forbidden. Symbolically D'Aguiar uses this to show that the white maters and their families were enslaved to their prejudices.
It could be said that The Longest Memory is an experimental novel. D'Aguiar allows for multiple narrators. He has a chapter that is rendered in rhyming couplets, he makes use of a journal, and he has a chapter which debates moral issues through the means of editorials in "The Virginian", a newspaper of the time. In one editorial, the slaves as mere property for sale and abuse are discussed. D'Aguiar allows the newspaper free reign in its commentary without any authorial comments. The impact is very powerful. A paragraph in one editorial runs: "A man purchased a slave from another man who sold the said slave without realizing she was with child. Upon discovery of this fact the seller wished further compensation from the buyer for the unborn child. The buyer said he refused to pay more since the original purchase was made without prior knowledge of the fact that he was getting himself a bargain - two for the price of one."
All of what we have come to expect from the slave novel are to be found in this short novel. There is the run away slave, the beatings, the structure of the plantation personnel, and the benign and malign plantation owners. D'Aguiar gives a freshness to the genre by being inventive in his telling of the story. This is a very good debut novel.