The Longest Memory

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Like Nobel-Prize winner Toni Morrison’s BELOVED (1987), THE LONGEST MEMORY, written by Guyanese author Fred D’Aguiar, demonstrates how personal tragedy arises out of the overall horror of slavery. In an evil system, both authors demonstrate, no goodness can survive.

At the opening of THE LONGEST MEMORY, a crisis looms for plantation owner Mr. Whitechapel, who is perhaps named after the district of Victorian London where Jack the Ripper murdered his women victims. Chapel, the son of his most trusted and obedient slave (who is also called Whitechapel), has run away, dreaming of a marriage to Mr. Whitechapel’s daughter in the North.

Upon old Whitechapel’s pleading, Mr. Whitechapel strikes a bargain. Young Chapel’s life is to be spared, since his father agrees to tell of his hiding place.

Yet this “gentleman’s agreement” comes to naught, indicating D’Aguiar’s belief that no two men can correct the evils of a whole system. While Mr. Whitechapel is gone, his brutal overseer, Mr. Sanders (again, perhaps an allusion to the name of “Colonel Sanders”), decides to disregard orders. In front of 250 plantation slaves, Chapel is given a lethal beating of 200 lashes.

Returning home, Mr. Whitechapel tells Mr. Sanders that Chapel is the child of Sanders’ father and his black cook. To avoid charges of miscegenation, his stepbrother had been reared as if he had been old Whitechapel’s son.

THE LONGEST MEMORY masterfully examines how slavery can lead to fratricide and familial betrayal. In the end, old Whitechapel dies of a broken heart as he realizes that his lifelong acquiescence led into a blind alley. Thus, Fred D’Aguiar shows well how human lives can be caught in a web of devilish design which no acts of human kindness can rend apart.