BOOK REVIEW / Colour-blind love on the underground railroad: The longest memory - Fred D'Aguiar: Chatto & Windus pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
TWO crucial attributes of human status are a name and a memory. Whitechapel, the very old slave who is the protagonist of The Longest Memory, wants to give up both. On the first page of Fred D'Aguiar's novel set on a Virginian slave plantation in the early 19th century, Whitechapel decides that, 'from this day I had no name. I was just boy, mule, nigger, slave or whatever else anyone chose to call me'. He wants to slip loose from his name because his life as a human being is simply too painful. 'Memory,' he tells us, 'is pain trying to resurrect itself.'

The memory that Whitechapel can no longer live with is that of witnessing his only son, Chapel, being whipped to death by the plantation overseer for attempting to escape. What makes this memory so unbearable for Whitechapel is that he told the master how to capture his son. How Whitechapel comes to betray his son, and why Chapel longs to escape, are the subjects of the book. 'There are two types of slave,' Whitechapel tells us, 'the slave who must experience everything for himself before coming to an understanding of anything and he who learns through observation.' Whitechapel, the cautious strategist, the canny survivor of decades of ownership,, has become, 'a master of his own slavery', who 'thinks freedom is death'. Chapel thinks freedom is in the North, and resolves to get there. But his father decides to save his son, not to abandon him to the horrible fate he might bring on himself.

These extraordinary events are recounted by Whitechapel in the first 27 pages of the book in a piece of writing which is searingly effective. D'Aguiar moves this prose swiftly and effortlessly between Whitechapel's terrible remorse and his harrowing account of Chapel's murder.

The writing of these opening pages is so good, and its core narrative so effectively laid bare, that it almost poses a problem in how to continue. But D'Aguiar opens up this first episode through a series of first-person narrative flashbacks. This is an elegant strategy. But it is as though the power of Whitechapel's creation has drained D'Aguiar's fictional reservoir; none of the other characters come close to his depth or complexity. Whitechapel's politics may be dismissed as 'collaborationist' but their strategic necessity is sketched with delicacy and economy. And it's not only Whitechapel's ideas that we grasp but his material reality: the spittle curling down his body in death 'curled like a nut'. The novelist imagines this character's sensual reality, and also inhabits his speech.

After the vivid particularity of Whitechapel's narrative, it is a disappointment to encounter the owner and for him to come across as a thin, eviscerated version of his slave. The novel's other characters, too, relate their stories from a similar pool of diction and lexicon, the rhythms of their speech sounding like the rapidly changing sprung rhythms which are so effective in D'Aguiar's poetry. This means that his version of the leaders of an early 19th- century newspaper, for example, lacks the orotund pomposity essential to the genre. D'Aguiar's characters speak with a high degree of abstraction, floating free from the constraints of history and society. This is fine if the point of their discourse is to explore the patterns of consciousness itself. But it won't quite do when their aim is to thicken the plot and flesh out characters.

Although the cruelties of slavery are devastatingly mapped out in the opening section, elsewhere the book is softer on slaves' experiences. Chapel, we discover, is illicitly taught to read by Lydia, the plantation owner's daughter. He begins to devour the staples of English literature: Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Donne. He falls in love with Lydia. He decides to 'write verses for a living'. Prevented from reading, writing and realising his love for Lydia, he resolves to travel North where such freedoms are permitted.

American slave narratives indicate that slaves risked their lives on the underground railroad for more than the chance to hang out with white girls and write poetry. But then the effect of slavery on Chapel sometimes seems about as irksome as the constraints endured by the callow protagonists of many other novels. Oddly, for the slave and the slave-owner's daughter in the Virginia of 1810, love is colour blind, and this sentimental relationship stymies the powerful realism which opens the book.