on 17 November 2008
Memoirs or fictional accounts of childhood experiences in Africa have become popular in recent years, in particular by Africans having escaped the horrors of war. They express a need to reconnect with their roots and its lasting influence on their lives. JMG Le Clézio's fictional treatment of his own formative time in Nigeria as a child has resulted in this powerful and alluring novel. Written in 1991 with the hindsight of historical events, most of the narrative is set against the harsh realities of colonial Nigeria in 1948/49 where revolts against the British had been increasing and, at least for one protagonist, the "end of the empire" was already in the cards. The story concludes twenty years later at the time of the brutal Biafra war, fought by the then independent Nigeria. In a lucid, yet often poetic language Le Clézio effortlessly blends an intimate portrait of his young hero, Fintan, his family and the personal challenges they confront with a sweeping impressionistic depiction of a real, yet also mystical place in its cultural and historical context.
During the month-long sea voyage from France to the remote Nigerian town of Onitsha, the twelve-year old Fintan experiences a rainbow of emotions: joyous anticipation as well as anxiety about their new home, homesickness and, above all, a sense dread of the father he never knew. The intimate relationship to his mother, Maou, short for Marie-Luisa, may be under threat in the new circumstances. Maou, Italian-born and desperate to leave her difficult life of prejudice behind, dreams of an Africa that is wild, idyllic and beautiful. It will also finally reunite her with her beloved husband. The romantic Geoffroy, whose fascination with Africa goes way back, had been caught up in Africa during all of WWII, and had finally, in 1948, asked his family to join him.
Reality is usually very different from dreams and all three main characters have to go through crises, substantial change and learning before they can find themselves and, hopefully, each other. The author lets the reader follow the path that each takes in their unique way. Fintan, an uncomplicated and receptive youth, has the easiest time in absorbing the new surroundings, literally throwing off his black shoes and woollen socks to follow his new friend Bony running barefoot through the long grass of the savannah. The boy, son of a local fisherman, increasingly takes the role of Fintan's guide into the mysteries of the local culture and religion. For example, when Fintan, unthinkingly destroys termite mounds, Bony chides his friend for having attacked the gods of nature. There is playfulness in the way they explore hidden paths to the river and its islands. Mystery abounds not least in the persons of Sabine Rodes, the eccentric loner who seems to live in a different universe from the British community, his "adopted son" Okawho and, above all Oya. Young Oya, whose name means "river goddess" in the local language, appears from nowhere and seems to live outside real time or space. Not only Fintan is completely mesmerized by her eerie beauty and behaviour...
Events also force Maou to adjust her dreams to the realities she encounters. Onitsha is a busy, British-run, urban trading centre, disconnected from the traditional way of life of the ancient cultures and religions and the natural idyll she was seeking. Her open-mindedness and sense of fairness towards the African population quickly brings her into conflict with the colonial establishment. Through her, Le Clézio expresses his strongest critique of colonialism while at the same time imparting her increasing sense of comfort and appreciation of her African surroundings and newly won friends. Whereas Geoffroy has become a middling bureaucrat in a trading company, his obsession with Africa has not diminished. He is unfeeling and overly strict towards his son and apparently uncaring towards his wife. While he becomes increasingly remote from daily life, he is absorbed in his search for clues as to the locality along the Niger river of a lost Meroë empire, refuge for the descendents of the last empress after they had to abandon the ancient city of Meroë in Upper Egypt. Geoffroy's sections in the novel are set apart from the rest of the flow of the story. They combine his personal quest with glimpses into this history-rich and culturally diverse region marked by the mighty Niger, a trading route for thousands of years. Le Clézio's concluding chapter - reflecting on the twenty years since the journey started - is deeply moving and satisfying.
The author's own experience percolates through his narrative and imagery. His detailed descriptions, evoking the beauty of landscape and the creatures inhabiting it, demonstrate an intimate knowledge of these surroundings: the magnetism of the powerful and mystical river on the peoples who live along its banks; the impact of the change of seasons and the play of colours and sounds from the early mornings to the setting sun in the mist after the heavy rains. The intimate connectedness between daily life and the spiritual realm is particularly well and sensitively conveyed. [Friederike Knabe]