L’Africain – Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

Song of the Day: ‘Je pense a toi’ by Amadou et Mariam

This past weekend I did a lot of cleaning. Whenever I feel restless, I clean. This type of cleaning is always good for me because I go through practically everything. I now have a couple of boxes of stuff to donate. Anywho, none of this matters as per this post. What’s more relevant is that I found under a pile of books that I had meant to sort months ago,  my copy of L’Africain by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. This is a book I read way back in 2008, and I could remember bits and pieces here and there. Anywho, I re-read it (it’s a very short book) and I fell in love with it again. As I started penning my thoughts on it, I remembered that I had actually written a review of it on my regular blog back in December of 2008. Why re-write another? Without further ado here are my thoughts then (of which hardly much has changed):

11/12/2008

A couple of months ago, I came across an article in the NY Times reprimanding Horace Engdahl (the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prizes) for claiming that American literature was too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe.

At the time, I thought, ‘Oh my! Someone has finally publicly said it.’ It brought to mind an “argument” I had with S. in April over modern literature — and specifically, American modern literature. Now, I didn’t go so far as Engdahl to claim that ‘Europe is superior, and the center of the literary world’ but I did tell her just as he did – that American literature is too engrossed in its own mass culture to make it less transcendent to the rest of the world.

Anywho, considering the controversy that Engdahl’s statements created in the mass media on this side of the Atlantic, I was interested in finding out who won — and a week later, it was announced to be Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio.

So, as the inquisitive soul that I am, I obviously looked up the guy, was pleased to discover that he has quite the list of books, short stories, memoirs that he’s written; but also dismayed to discover that I didn’t know where to start. So, I promptly forgot about him until two weeks ago …

V. (same Russian, who reads more than I do), excitedly called to tell me, ‘A., you have to order or check out L’Africain, by Le Clézio, asap! My grandmother (adorable old lady who is quite the literary buff) recommended it as an absolute must-read!’ I was so pleased to hear this, and after relating the above experience to her, checked it out from the library…

So now after that long and convoluted introduction, here are some of my thoughts on it (this will not be the typical A.-review but very short and concise, so bear with me) …

L’Africain

l'africainIt is an autobiographical essay (published now in a book, and unfortunately not in English) that he wrote about his time in colonial Nigeria in the 1940s. He writes the book as a sort-of memoirs, and even though it’s focus is on his life and experiences there, it is also a book in which he honours his father (A British army doctor who specialised in tropical diseases, and from whom he was separated for long periods of time whilst he worked abroad).

The first thing to capture my attention was what he has written on the first page, and in a paragraph in the preface.

J’ai longtemps rêvé que ma mère était noire. Je m’étais inventé une histoire, un passé, pour fuir la réalité à mon retour d’Afrique, dans ce pays, dans cette ville où je ne connaissais personne, où j’étais devenu un étranger. Puis j’ai découvert, lorsque mon père, à l’âge de la retraite, est revenu vivre avec nous en France, que c’était lui l’Africain. Cela a été difficile à admettre. Il m’a fallu retourner en arrière, recommencer, essayer de comprendre. En souvenir de cela, j’ai écrit ce petit livre.**

The second was his style of writing. Most of the time when one reads a book on Africa by Europeans, they normally take two forms: condescension or idealisation (both equally off-putting) that I was very happy to discover was missing in this book.

As I mentioned above, the book focuses primarily on that part of his childhood that he spent in Nigeria, which he describes in quite the detail. However, the main thing to note here is that even though he does that, it is without the usual analysis that accompanies such descriptions of Africa, which most European writers feel necessary to include.

Granted, any attempt to describe a culture other than one’s own inevitably involves using one’s cultural reference to describe that culture. I further grant that the unavoidable use of one’s cultural lens to relate to another culture rules out the possibility of there being a one-to-one relationship between what one writes about the other culture and what that culture is in its complexity. Nonetheless that attempt at crossing can be done without condescension or idealisation, which is what Le Clézio does.

Oh! Such a refreshing read.

Till next post!

PS: As you can tell from the above quote, L’Africain refers to his father.

PPS: I promise to absolutely dazzle you with the upcoming review of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. I was blown away by it, and had to re-read some portions, including the Apropos de Fathers and Sons which Turgenev wrote years later to respond to the controversy created by the book (and which resulted in his living in exile for the rest of his years) … so hang tight dears till then …

**“I have long dreamt that my mother was black. I had invented a story, a history, to escape reality upon my return from Africa in this country, in this city where I did not know anyone, where I had become a stranger. Then I discovered when my father at the age of retirement, returned to live with us in France that he was the African. This has been difficult to accept. I felt I had to go back,once again,to try to understand. I wrote this little book as a souvenir (to those memories).”

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