PEN America is thrilled to showcase the work of recipients of the 2018 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants. The fund awards grants of $2,000–$4,000 to promote the publication and reception of translated world literature in English.
The following is an excerpt from Lindy Falk van Rooyen‘s grant-winning translation of HOPE by Danish writer Mich Vraa.
Falk van Rooyen writes: The Danish novel HOPE by Mich Vraa is composed of a variety of documents from 1788–1825, and includes diary extracts, a captain’s log, personal and official letters, manuscripts, royal decrees, and records of government regulations. In August 1822, 30 years after slavery is officially abolished by King Christian VII of Denmark, the Danish professor Mikkel Eide writes a political treatise criticizing the Danish slave trade. Impressed by his writing and integrity, a reformist Copenhagen editor commissions Eide to sail to the West Indies to do research for a book on the subject.
I have chosen to translate an extract from Eide’s personal diary four months into his 12-month stay in 1824 on Solitude, a plantation on St. Thomas belonging to the prosperous Danish planter Jan Marcussen. The diary explores the relationship between Eide and Marcussen, a male friendship unfolding in a vivid and contentious historical context, and the knotty issues inherent in slavery, “home-grown” and produced in the Danish West Indies. Both Eide and Marcussen are men with a strong social conscience, but, initially, their beliefs regarding “the Negroes” are vested in respectively academic and commercial considerations, although Eide’s experience with slavery becomes increasingly personal as he falls in love with the slave girl Afi.
Mikkel Eide is an enlightened Danish man of feeling who is both respected and mocked by Marcussen for his idealism and particular way with words. Marcussen is not only a member of the class of wealthy planters on St. Thomas, but also, unbeknownst to Eide, a former ships doctor who survived a mutiny on a slave ship in 1788, when his beloved wife was brutally raped and murdered. Marcussen, belonging to an older generation, has genuine empathy for the slaves in his charge, but his youthful illusions of a humane world, the very ideals he admires in Eide, have been shattered.
The ambiguous relationship between these two men is a significant part of a skillfully written and decidedly Danish perspective on a fraught period of slavery in 19th century world history that has rarely, if ever, been given an international audience.
“They’re all evil by nature, and I doubt there’s much good to be found in any one of them. If I dared, I’d admit that I think their black skins display their nature; I think they were destined for bondage, and, by rights, should never be free.” Planter J.R. Haagensen, St. Croix “The only thing you cannot take from a human being, even a slave, is that morsel of hope, no matter how modest, that his life will improve. So this is what I give them. I give them hope.”
Planter Jan Marcussen, Solitude, St. Thomas
. . .
Mikkel Eide’s Diary,
Solitude, April 5, 1824
Despite the depth of my appreciation and willingness to understand if not excuse Marcussen’s actions, a point of contention has arisen between us. It pains me, for on the whole, I am very fond of the man.
On more than one occasion a week I am invited to dine with him in the grand residence. Solitude has certainly entertained guests before, but scarcely in a number that could warrant a veritable dinner party. The food is always delicious and exquisitely prepared; I suspect that Marcussen’s predilection for exotic dishes excites the culinary excellence of his house slaves. They take pride in what they can achieve with produce, many of which, I am told, are comparable to those grown in Africa.
Indeed, at Marcussen’s table, I have enjoyed fruits never before known to Europeans. A delicious guava that only grows in the West Indies, passion fruit, melon, breadfruit, mango, and a miniature, extraordinarily tasty variety of banana. The vegetables are green, the beans ochre and finger-like, the potatoes large and sweet—and those splendid green peppers that I have learnt to appreciate—in prudent doses! Other gustatory delights range from ox, pig, and goat flesh to their extraordinary shellfish: The enormous shrimp-like crayfishes, called langoustines, and those piquant, fleshy crabs that are broiled in their own shells. I have chanced upon these creatures on the beach, by the score in the dunes surrounding my cabin, even further inland, far from any identifiable saltwater source.
If other guests have been invited to Solitude, it has always been in the manner of some eminent local official, planter, or merchant from Charlotte Amalie; as a group, they are a motley crew, the majority not of Danish but British, French or Dutch descent. They are the kind of people who revel in society: at regular intervals grand dinner parties are thrown; card games and banquets, not least, lavish drinking in some or other noble homestead about Charlotte Amalie. Their lifestyle is elaborate and luxurious to an extent not seen in Denmark outside of court. The planters are a horde of sybarites with wildly expensive taste, as if to silence any doubt as to their considerable pecuniary fortune.
On those scant occasions when such parties are staged at Solitude, no luxury is spared either. But our host is considerably less jovial in the company of his peers than when he dines with me. In their company, he is often aloof, set apart from the boisterous banter and debauchery; he seems preoccupied, distracted by grave memories, perhaps. I have no inkling of their content, but they seem to weight him with sorrow.
There is no question that Marcussen knows a large number of people, but few, if any, are close friends, which makes me feel privileged, as, for whatever reason, I seem to have won his confidence, I feel relatively certain of this.
And thus it pains me all the more to believe he has acted unjustly. When he calls on me in my cabin, where I have become accustomed to play the host, even if everything within its walls belongs to him, he treats Afi in a manner I cannot condone. His behavior reminds me of the night I arrived on the island, when she was ordered to present herself at my bedroom door, humiliate herself, an incident I would rather forget.
“Well, if it isn’t my little nigger girl,” he can go as far as saying on entering my small kitchen to find Afi preparing a meal for us by the stove.
My heart beats wildly when this happens. Partly due to his churlish behavior, or rather, his infantilism, which angers me on her behalf. Yet, in truth, it is much more than this, for it fills me with no small measure of jealousy. Did he give her to me, or not? I wonder. Sometimes I doubt the sincerity of his gesture, whether her services were indeed meant to facilitate my stay on the island, or if she is just one of his ironic pranks, which, in most other circumstances, I have grown to appreciate very much.
For her part, the girl seems to take no heed, but then she says very little when Marcussen is present. Indeed, she is so quiet that I cannot help feeling less jovial myself.
So I prefer visiting Marcussen in his own house; Afi is not there, and I can enjoy his company without having to be concerned about her.
Yesterday, Sunday, I again dined with Marcussen in his stately home. We lingered in the dining room, sharing the remainder of a very fine dessert wine, a Madeira, I believe it was, till his house slave, a mulatto girl by the name of Baba, delivered a message for my host. Marcussen rose from the table and followed her into the hall. He was gone for about five minutes, and when he returned, he seemed disgruntled.
“Not bad news, I hope?” I asked cautiously, loath to pretend that nothing was amiss.
“Very bad, I’m afraid,” he said with characteristic candor; the owner of Solitude was not a man who minced his words.
I reached for my glass, took another sip, fixed my eyes on him, and waited. He returned my gaze, the look on his face severe, and then surprised me with a smile.
“Never mind,” he said, switching to English. “I don’t wish to bore you with my affairs.”
“Your affairs don’t bore me in the least,” I rejoined.
“So I see,” he said at last, perhaps feeling he owed me some kind of explanation after all. “I’ve had a report from my foreman, Just,” he added. “It appears that four slaves have absconded. We’ve had quite a number of runaways lately, we don’t know where they’re disappearing to, but Just believes they’ve fled to the north, over the water.”
Marcussen gulped down the remainder of his wine, and flung his napkin onto the table. He put his heel down hard, and a throaty groan escaped from the oak floorboards underfoot; even a massive mansion like Solitude had its little quirks. “Why don’t we get some fresh air, Professor,” he suggested.
We found a seat in planter chairs on the veranda. Marcussen flipped out his footrest, kicked off his boots, and put his feet up. I followed suit but kept my boots on. We stared into the darkness for a while. A slice of light spilt from a doorway of the low-slung building opposite us. The air quivered with the croak-song of frogs, but we were oblivious to them. Two glasses and a decanter of Marcussen’s superior rum stood on the coffee table between us. He poured us each a glass and slid one over to me.
The rain dropped to the ground. On this island, rain falls as swiftly as the dark, as if some meteorological spirit had spoken a magic word; a prompter in the wings commands rain! and it gushes down. It hammers into rooftops and earth and palms, blackening the skies over mountains and sea. Now, in the night on Marcussen’s veranda, we heard the rain, rather than saw it, a continuous thrumming, a million-strong throng of locusts ramming the canvass of a Biblical king’s tent.
“Would it be fair to say that you’ve come to appreciate life on Saint Thomas?” Marcussen queried.
“Indeed, it would. I am happy here, but …”
The rain filled out my hesitation.
“But I could not possibly live here permanently.” I felt a sting of panic at the prospect.
The large man in the chair next to mine shrugged. “And why is that?”
“I have to go home to Denmark. My home is in Copenhagen.”
He laughed. “You make it sound as if Copenhagen were the only place in the world a man could make his home. What does Copenhagen have, which is so indispensible?”
I realized that this ought to have been an easy question to answer. But it was not.
Marcussen frowned. “I’ve been in the West Indies for thirty-five years. And I will never leave. I can’t imagine settling in Copenhagen.” He shivered. I tried to imagine Marcussen, the slave owner and planter of Solitude in top hat and tails, twirling once around the Royal court’s ballroom. The image made me smile. And he noticed.
“What are you laughing at, Eide?” His words were clipped, but he was not angry, and I wondered whether it was possible to ruffle Marcussen at all. This is a side of him I greatly appreciate: he is a man who speaks his mind, and he expects the same from others.
“I guess I’m having trouble imagining you in Copenhagen, promenading the canal market on a winter’s day so cold the fishwives have grown an ice moustache to match their frigid fish.”
“Eide,” he laughed, “you certainly have a way with words! Sometimes I think about that manuscript you’re writing. I don’t suppose a man could get a peek at a few pages of your work?”