My Thoughts on “The Longest Memory”:
A while ago I had the privilege of reading this very short, very beautifully crafted book by Fred D’Aguiar, a writer whose name I had never come across before, which is of course a reflection on my own literary ignorance as this book was a winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award. When I say very short, the book is only about 130 pages long, a length that easily fits into an afternoon, but the story it tells is immense and the feel of the book will stay with you, or, as Paula Burnett of the New Statesman puts it:
“This deceptively simple book resonates long after it is finished.”
D’Aguiar’s main interest, and the theme of most of his writings, is the slave trade and the history of slavery in the US, and so this lovely, lyrical book relates the events immediately prior to and after the death of a young slave who received 200 lashes as punishment for running away from the Virginia plantation where he had been born.
The story is told through the voices of the young slave’s grieving and guilt-ridden father, whose punishment is perhaps greater than that of his son; his mother, who learns that kindness is the greatest form of love; his lover, someone who believes that people really can change the world; the plantation owner, a man who has a vision of the future and who battles within himself over the issue of owning other human beings; the overseer who ordered the 200 lashes, a man perhaps haunted more by the future than the past; and, in a chapter written so musically and beautifully in verse, the young man himself.
Perhaps because the author himself is black - sorry, as an Aussie I never know what label is applicable or acceptable these days - he is able to write on such a subject with a tenderness which is absolutely tangible. At one point the overseer is addressing Whitechapel, the father of the dead young slave, and, comparing him to his own father, says:
“I am his son. I think like him. You yourself said I resembled him, that I was my father’s young self. But my memory of him is sullied. He lacked your courage, Whitechapel. If you were white I would have wanted you as my father.”
At the end of the book, Whitechapel, who believed that a slave who behaved, who served his master faithfully, who showed respect, could in turn expect to be treated fairly and also shown respect, but whose beliefs were shattered with the death of his son, says:
“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.”
I've heard one writer say that his favourite books are those he keeps on the top shelf of his bookcase. This beautiful work must indeed take its place on the top shelf of all those privileged enough to read it.