WHAT is hell?
Hell is the worst, the very worst. It can be imagined only because no one has received a round-trip ticket there. My 1980s Children's Bible portrayed it as a dark cave full of flames with shadow monsters hiding in rock crevices. (The Children's Bible heaven was a large, green garden with fountains and white people in flowing chiffon. After all, it was the 1980s.)
For millennia, artists and writers have used their darkest imaginations to depict hell, and there is rich material. Think of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights: his works are feasts of darkness, with pain and suffering everywhere in every possible form. Before Bosch, there was Dante Alighieri and his Divine Comedy, where the first chapter takes the reader on a journey to the underworld.
Bosch and Dante; Virgil, Milton and Sartre; painters, poets and filmmakers through the centuries have created works to depict hell. Their words and images spring from what would be the worst for them. But there are people who have known hell, daily. Who did not need imagination to conceive the worst.
Jesmyn Ward takes the title of her new book, Let Us Descend, from “Inferno", the first volume of Divine Comedy. And Ward's book is indeed about hell: the hell of slavery in America in the 18th and early 19th centuries, before the Civil War officially ended slave ownership. The story begins with Annis, a slave on a plantation in the Carolinas. Still a child, she is taught the art of combat by her mother. They practise in the midnight hours with spears and sticks. The first sentence: “The first weapon I ever held was my mother's hand."
Cellar full of rats
The impressive opening leads to a chapter of 23 pages that portrays the world in which Annis has to survive. It's an excellent start, a chapter that could stand alone as a short story. Ward provides just enough detail in powerful, almost clinical sentences, as she outlines the hell of a life in slavery.
Early in the second chapter, Dante appears. Annis listens as her half-sisters' tutor (her mother was raped by the plantation owner, and she is the result) reads from “Inferno": “Let us descend now into this blind world." Annis immediately draws a comparison with her mother's life: every day she has to descend through the floors of her owner's enormous house, from the attic and the bedrooms to the kitchen with the perpetually burning oven and the cellar full of rats. Up and down, every day, without stopping, without choice.
“Let us descend" in Divine Comedy reads like an invitation, but the hell in the rest of Ward's book has little to do with Dante's 14th-century imagination. This author is uncompromising. Her descriptions of the hell Annis has to endure are so horrifying that I had to stop reading several times, taking slow breaths.
Annis is sold, and in a convoy with other slaves she walks more than 1,000km to New Orleans. Their feet are bare and their limbs are bound with rope that cuts into their flesh. They are forced through rivers, and if one sinks the rest must drown with them. The hell Annis describes early in the book sounds like heaven compared to what awaits her in Louisiana.
Harriet Beecher Stowe made the world sit up in 1852 with Uncle Tom's Cabin, a bestseller of that year. Stowe's book is fiction but she relied heavily on published slave narratives like those of Josiah Henson and Phebe Jacobs, as well as interviews she conducted with slaves. Stowe wanted to get as close as possible to the truth of the slaves' reality. She has since been discredited as an appropriator.
The body of fiction dealing with the history of slavery has steadily grown. Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad earned a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize, as did Beloved by Toni Morrison. Homegoing, the excellent first book from Yaa Gyasi, tells a dual story of two sisters, one sold into slavery and kidnapped from Ghana to America, the other a slave in Africa.
Ward adds her voice to the choir with Let Us Descend. She has won the National Book Award for fiction twice. Her style is described as “searing", “visceral", “lyrical", “harrowing", “brutal".
She is indeed uncompromising as a writer, and this book adequately portrays the relentless cruelty of slavery. Unfortunately, a few factors undermine the book's impact. Annis's vocabulary, for example, hinders consistent characterisation. When she refers to a “venous curtain" in the Louisiana swamp, I find myself wondering how an illiterate young slave would come across such a word. Her hardened skin is compared to a pool of frozen water. In Louisiana?
The register is not consistent, and it happens too often not to be noticed. Language register can be successfully used as a characterisation technique — I think, for example, of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, where Celie's language evolves and becomes more sophisticated as her character develops. The inconsistencies in Annis's use of language detract from the credibility of the character. During Annis's journey to Louisiana, she is accompanied by spirits. Intertextuality, perhaps — Dante is accompanied by the spirit of Virgil, the Roman poet. However, for me, these spirits made the narrative less believable rather than reinforcing the brutality of Annis's experience.
Nevertheless, Ward delivers a brave, powerful text without shying away from the gruesome realities of slavery. Her language is brutal, raw, poignant. The book deeply moved me.
Early in the book, Annis expresses her needs: To be seen. Not just to be a slave but to be human. To feel the world is aware of her, the person she truly is.
Let Us Descend makes the history of slavery tangible by telling stories, by creating characters from anonymous numbers and statistics. To become aware of Annis is to momentarily descend into the reality of her life in the dark era of slavery. It will not leave you untouched.
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward was published by Bloomsbury and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.
♦ VWB ♦
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