SLAVE by William Malliol


Email this review


Malliol (A Sense of Dark, 1968) has written a bloody, darkly comic second novel in which a 19th-century African slave looks back over his past for the benefit of an early English historian. Hadi Abbabba Guwah--but better and more evocatively known by his tribal name of Big Head--is an old man who, as a favor to his tribal leader, sits down one day in Algeria, sometime in the mid-19th century, to tell his life story to a curious Englishman ""even if it be [in] words of the jargon of the savage language of the pagans."" Big Head (now a convert to Islam) was born some 60 years earlier in the country of Popo, a member of a tribe of man-eaters (one of his earliest memories is of playing with the skulls of captured warriors). He grew to manhood after his father had his mother gruesomely executed for alleged sorcery, and might've become tribal chief if the Muslim slave traders of the Sultan of Kashka hadn't destroyed his village and captured him. Thus begins his life as a roguish, inventive, infinitely adaptable slave. He runs away innumerable times, is caught and sold, over and over again (""a Hausa merchant. . .bought me for only three riyalat. I was of the opinion I was worth at least twenty"") and finally ends up in the Great Sahara, impressed into service by the savage blue-faced Tuaregs and the marauding Berbers. By this time he's lost an arm in battle, is covered with hundreds of scars from beatings, and ""I was exhausted with the want of kindness. It wasted me."" So he and Samonama--the Berber gift who is the love of his life--run away to fight in the battle of Bal-al-Din, a massive, bloody effort by the Algerians to oust the French Foreign Legion. Big Head is the only survivor on his side, but he survives a long time, mourning Samonama but currying favor with the Europeans, so that his old age finds him rich, successful, and as crafty as ever, not at all the humble former slave he is pretending to be. In sum: a violent but brightly colored African past which comes stirringly alive through the absolute authority of Big Head's narration.

Pub Date: May 27th, 1986
ISBN: 0393335070
Publisher: Norton