Sunday, April 3, 2016

The African

In my quest for good writing I came across The African, by J.M.G. Le Clézio, a short memoir written mainly about his father. The family was split up at the outbreak of World War II, with the mother and children living in Nice and the father working as a rural doctor in Nigeria. After the war they reunited in Nigeria, but by then Le Clézio was already eight, and his father was a stranger to him. The memoir is a thoughtful effort by a son to understand his father, which in this case requires a deep understanding of Africa and the effects it can have on those who live there.

Along the way, Le Clézio seems to have absorbed much of his father's love of the continent and a simmering disapproval of colonialism:
When I read British "colonial" novels of those years, or the years just prior to our arrival in Nigeria – for example Joyce Cary, the author of Mister Johnson – they are completely unfamiliar to me. When I read William Boyd, who also spent part of his childhood in British West Africa, I can't relate to it either. His father was a D.O. (in Accra, Ghana, I believe). I never experienced what he describes – the cumbersome colonialism, the ridiculous antics of the expatriate white society on the coast, all of the pettiness that children take particular notice of, the disdain for the native people, of whom they knew only the faction of servants who had to indulge the whims of their masters' children, and above all, that sort of clique that both unifies and separates children of the same blood and in which they are able to glimpse an ironical reflection of their defects and their masquerades, and that, in a manner of speaking, forms the training ground for racial awareness that, in their case, takes the place of the school of human awareness. Thank God I can say all of that is completely foreign to me....

Where does that sense of deeply rooted repulsion I have felt for the colonial system since my childhood stem from? I must have picked up a word, a thought about the ridiculous behavior of administrators such as the district officer of Abakaliki whom my father took me to see and who lived among a pack of Pekingese dogs that were fed filet of beef and biscuits, and given exclusively mineral water to drink. Or else the tales of Great White Hunters traveling in convoys on lion and elephant hunts, sporting rifles with telescopic sights and exploding bullets who, when they encountered my father in those remote lands, took him for a safari organizer and questioned him regarding the presence of wild animals. My father would answer "In the twenty years I've been living here, I've never seen one, unless you're talking about snakes or vultures."

His mother seems to have shared some of that sentiment:
I can't recall what she said to my brother and me, when she spoke of the country where she'd lived with my father, the place we would join him in one day. I only know that when my mother decided to marry my father and to go and live in Cameroon, her Parisian friends had said to her, "What, with the savages?" and she, after everything my father had told her, simply responded "They're no more savage than the people in Paris."

Parts of the book remind me a little of my childhood, though the contrasts in mine were far less spectacular than his. Le Clézio's father was strict and taciturn, and the rules that children had to follow were more confining than those that exist today:
He was full of idiosyncrasies and conventions, about which I hadn't the slightest inkling: children should never speak at the table without being authorized, they should not run, or play, or laze in bed. They could not eat between meals, and never eat sweet things. They should eat without laying their hands on the table, could not leave anything in their plates and should be careful never to chew with their mouths open.

One cannot help but be moved by Le Clézio's account of the jolt that Africa gave him:
...I remember everything I received when I arrived in Africa for the first time: such intense freedom that it burned inside of me, inebriated me, gave me so much pleasure it was painful. 

I don't mean to speak of exoticism: children are absolute strangers to that vice. Not because they see through beings and objects, but because they see nothing but them: to me a tree, a hollow in the land, a column of carpenter ants, a band of turbulent kids looking for a game, an old man with blurry eyes holding out an emaciated hand, a street in an African village on market day, were every street in every village, every old man, every child, every ant. That treasure is still alive deep within me, it cannot be eradicated. Much more than simple memories, it is made up of basic truths.

This writing has a quiet intensity that, for lack of a better term, some might call "heartfelt." One doesn't often encounter it in literature, and the only other writer whom I can think of offhand who exudes a similar emotional energy is D.H. Lawrence in his early works. Le Clézio is struggling with his past and trying to make sense of it, as must everyone to one degree or another. If, for contrast, you compare this writing to Proust's, Proust seems like one of those spoiled and insular colonial children and has chosen to concentrate on describing social protocol; after several thousand pages, he still hasn't quite figured out what Charles Swann, Robert de Saint-Loup or most of the other characters are all about – will he ever? For me, Proust seems as if he is sleepwalking through life. Although there is something to be said for stylistic elegance in which a certain ambiance is captured or an unusual effect is made, these are not substitutes for real insight. There is as much humanity to be found in this little book as you may ever find elsewhere, and it is encouraging to me that the Nobel Committee for Literature gets things right once in a while.

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