I have read only one book by Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio — Desert (my thoughts here) — and I still remember well its atmosphere and depth. I’ve been anxious to read more as I have a suspicion he could become one of my Pantheon authors, but as the years have passed other books have come up first. I was very excited to see, then, that Le Clézio’s short book, The African (L’Africain, 2004; tr. from the French by C. Dickson, 2013), was being published, giving me an opportunity to get back in touch.
The African is Le Clézio’s 100-page essay on two subject that have mingled in his memories from his youth: his father and Africa. When Le Clézio was born in 1940 in Nice, France, World War II was going strong. His father, who was at that time a doctor serving in the British Army in Nigeria, was unable to cross the sea to find his family. Finally, in 1948, Le Clézio, his brother, and his mother found their way to Nigeria where the family was reunited.
What Le Clézio, only eight years old, found there was a mixture of overwhelming feelings. He fell in love with Africa, and in the first part of the book he allows us to roam with him through his memories of place and time; but he also discovered that his father was a stranger — even worse, his father was a man to be feared. This book is the elder Le Clézio’s attempt to go back to that muddled terrain and try to comprehend what his young self was going through.
The world changes, it’s true, and the boy who is standing over there on the plain amidst the tall grasses in the hot breath of wind bearing the odors of the savannah, the shrill sound of the forest, the boy feeling the dampness of the sky and the clouds upon his lips, that boy is so far from me that no story, no journey will ever make it possible for me to reach him again.
An attempt, then, but a wonderful essay into what such an attempt entails. Even the structure of the book underlines the process of such an attempt.
The first part, as I mentioned above, contains several vignettes from Le Clézio’s youth in Africa, exploring termite mounds and forgotten rivers with his brother and the native children. It’s a wonderful part of the book, but always trying to invade it from the side are memories of his father, the man who was, to Le Clézio, the African. The memories of Africa are not complete without his father, or the strange man who happened to be his father.
His father had sought out Africa, not wanting to settle for “the mediocrity” of British life. He was prideful, then, but also wanted some adventure. It’s hardly worth wondering what his father would have been had he chosen a “more conventional, less solitary life. To have treated colds and constipation, rather than leprosy and malaria or lethargic encephalitis.” So his father sought this solitary life in Africa out, yet it had “robbed him of a family life and the love of his children.”
In its larger themes, The African deals with colonialism, something Le Clézio and his father despised — yet, how can they escape it, something they embodied. The family’s relationship with colonialism goes back generations. Le Clézio’s maternal and paternal lineage is from Brittany, but in 1798 his paternal line fled and settled in Mauritius, then a French colony. In 1810, Mauritius was made a British colony, and the family stayed there until Le Clézio’s father went to Britain to study medicine. This British-trained doctor of French descent treated patients first in British Guiana, then Cameroon, and finally Nigeria. As conflicted as Le Clézio may be about his own unintentional colonial past, he recognizes in it his identity.
I am forever yearning to go back to Africa, to my childhood memory. To the source of my feelings, to that which molded my character.
I gave a copy of this book to a co-worker who read it and in turn gave it to her grandmother. I won’t go into the personal insights of the others, but it certainly is a book that one can share for its discoveries and for its intimacies.
Also, I don’t necessarily want to end my review on a point that could be somewhat superficial, but I must bring up the exceedingly high production value David R. Godine put into it. It’s a sturdy hardcover with a beautiful imprint; the inner covers are maps that underscore the region but also the nostalgic feel for an age of youthful discovery; the pages are glossy and contain several crisp photographs of the remote region of Le Clézio’s youth. This book is a gem, probably one not easily found in your typical bookstore making it somewhat remote for some, but it’s worth seeking out.