Fred D’Aguiar – Feeding the Ghosts
Fred D’Aguiar was born in 1960 in London and brought up in Guyana. His first novel, The Longest Memory, won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guyanese Fiction Award and the David Higham Prize. Feeding the Ghosts was published in 1997.
In 1783 a scandal broke around the slave ship, Zong, the crew of which had ditched 132 “livestock” in the Atlantic. This was not a particularly unusual happening at the time, for sick slaves were worth more in insurance as “goods lost at sea,” than if they were brought to market.
But D’Aguiar’s novel takes this ‘fact’ of history, and processes it through his imagination and his poetic sensibility and fashions a piece of extended prose narrative which steals your breath away. This passage, stolen from the prologue, sets the tone and pace:
Water replaces air in 131 of these bodies. They fight then become still as if changing from struggle to an embrace, seeing in an enemy someone to love and therefore to hold, no longer against water but a part of its thrust from one point of the compass to another. Salt washes wounds on those bodies instilled by the locks, chains, masks, collars, binds, fetters, handcuffs and whips of the land, washes until those wounds belong to the sea.
Water caresses the skin unloved on land for so long. Water applies its soft salted lips to every pore of that body in an attempt to enliven the very body it has wrestled to a stillness in the first place, as if the body’s very surrender is a point of departure for water from conqueror to worshipper. Sea refuses to grant that body the quiet of a grave in the ground. Instead it rolls that body across its terrain, send that body down into its depths, its stellar dark, swells the body to bursting point, tumbles it beyond the reach of horizons and gradually breaks fragments from that body with its nibbling, dissecting current.
Soon all those bodies melt down to bones, then the sea begins to treat the bones like rock, there to be shaped over time or ground to dust. Sea does not stop at death. Salt wants to consume every morsel of those bodies until the sea becomes them, becomes their memory. So it is from the sea that all 131 souls are to be plucked. From a sea oblivious to time. One hundred and thirty-one dissipated bodies find breath in the wind skimming over the surface of the sea and howl. Those bodies have their lives written on salt water. The sea current turns pages of memory. One hundred and thirty-one souls roam the Atlantic with countless others. When the wind is heard it is their breath, their speech. The sea is therefore home.
It is a troubled and troubling novel and perhaps not for the squeamish, but for anyone who loves language and can be moved by its raw power, D’Aguiar’s book is mesmerising, powerful and beautiful.