To be loved. So reads the name of Beloved. But the importance of the story lies not around whether Beloved is a product of imagination. Instead the novel weaves itself around nothingness, the almost imperceptible trace of extinction, and nothing else is the history of American slavery. This is in the centre of this book; a discussion with all language, with all precision and fragility of form, of what has been made speechless.
It is a novel that fascinates one like an evil spirit. It forces you to continue to read when you don’t want to and to ponder upon about things you don’t want to think about. A lyrical, sad, powerful, disturbing book. It tells of the consequences of slavery, of trauma, of loss and of pain, and highlights of the infinite power of resistance.
It begins in 1873, in 124 in Bluestone Road, Cincinatti, where Sethe, lives in seclusion with her fourteen-year-old daughter Denver. The house is evil, treacherous like a toddler, they say. It is the setting that tells of the inconceivability of slavery, an evil and treacherous tale. It is told in such a way that the inconceivability of this story becomes vivid, that with every addition, with every further turn, the tale becomes more urgent, more intense, more present. The unthinkability of this American form of slavery, these 60 million people and more who were taken from their homes. The so-called Middle Passage, in which their African culture, their heritage, their language and history were lost, so thoroughly, that their culture has remained unimaginable to this day. Morrison’s novel seeks to make this incomprehensibility available, this ignorance of an erased history, a language and a culture. It is in its inaccessibility that memory that is fragmentary in every sense acts as the only channel to truth to arise and be expressed.
Beloved is not a ghost story, rather, it expresses the experience of extinction to such an extent that nothing will ever be able to make good this extinction again. Nothing can be made good; no annihilation can be undone. Thus, it is the trauma of Sethe and her actions which form the centre of the novel. The annihilation of self
Sethe, for the first time in her life, becomes aware of being a human being of her own, of having children, there is Baby Suggs, the house in which they live, the neighbourhood, black people, like them former slaves. She is just beginning to feel a sense of freedom when one morning she sees her former owner riding towards the house with the sheriff and a slave hunter. Nobody warned her. She packs her children, locks herself in the little shed behind the house and tries to kill them. At least they should be spared the experience of slavery, which is worse than death. She injures her two sons, kills her two-year-old, the tiny Denver can barely be torn from her hand by Stamp, who hastens to her. This horror story, this raging of the devil, who drove as effect of slavery in Sethe, shows the fate of a visitation, similar to the one coming from Beloved. In order to escape the devil, Sethe herself becomes the devil, and she becomes it for freedom’s sake. Her children should be free, even if they have to be dead to be free. That is the logic of slavery.
Their deed at least brings those who wanted to bring them back into slavery, back under their lawless, devilish, sadistic rule, to fear it. They abandon her, abandon her plan to bring her back into slavery. As if they were sure that what Sethe now expects is even worse than slavery – to have become the devil yourself, who can only protect his freedom by death.
‘This is not a story to tell.’ That’s what it says at the end of the book. ‘This is not a story to pass on.’ Which exactly names the dilemma of the memory work that this book dares to do: This story is not a story to tell. At the same time, it is also the story that must be told, one that can never be ignored.