We are in 1948. World War II is a recent memory. Colonial empires are coming to an end even though many colonizers do not seem to know it yet. Geoffroy Allen, a United Africa Company agent stationed in Onitsha, invites his Italian wife Maria Luisa (Maou) to join him in Nigeria with their twelve-year-old son, Fintan, whom he has never seen. The commercial city of Onitsha becomes the meeting place for three distinct imaginary visions of Africa. For Maou it is a vast forest evoked in Geoffroy's letters: “a forest dark as night, inhabited by thousands of birds” (O, 32). Onitsha was for him a place where “everything would be different, everything would be easy” (O, 31). For his son it is a new world to explore, a world where he will be able to escape the tyranny of an unknown father he prefers not to know. For Geoffroy, Africa is the long road to an epic dream inspired by the destruction, in the third century AD, of the ancient city of Meroë. He is convinced that the Queen of Meroë led her people from Nubia in a great transcontinental migration, leading to the foundation of a new civilization. When he meets the Aros of south-eastern Nigeria, he is convinced that their language and culture bear the traces of an ancient Egyptian religion brought by the refugees from Meroë.
Geoffroy is expelled from his post by the colonial authorities and Fintan has no choice but go, as an adult, to England, where he witnesses from afar in 1968 the Biafran War, a failed secession war that sees the Igbo people reduced to famine, and near extermination. His testimony, as well as that of his parents, nevertheless reveals a complex geopolitical environment in which many of Le Clézio's favorite themes come into play. The role of the sacred in the history of peoples can be seen in the memory of Meroë and in the story of the desecration of the Oracle of Aro Chuku by the British army in 1902. We also see it in the remarks of Bony (a young Nigerian friend of Fintan) on the sanctity of eagles and termite mounds, and in the mystery of the apparently mute woman, Oya, who represents both the victims of colonial oppression and the resistance of peoples who refuse to disappear.
In this anguished world run by an oppressive colonial presence that does not try to understand the culture and society it claims to administer, the family begins to split. Geoffroy tries in vain to come to terms with the presence of his wife, considered strange and exotic in the eyes of the British in Onitsha. From the moment Maou publicly denounces the abuse of the African “convicts” that the District Officer Gerald Simpson cruelly employs to build a swimming pool, she is no longer welcomed in the small and pompous circle of colonists. Geoffroy understands his wife's dismay but he does not have the courage to confront his colleagues. Maou tries to love her husband while hating the system he has to work for. Abandoned most of the time by her husband and son, she befriends Nigerian women. Fintan seeks Bony's company to escape from his parents' company and forge roots among a people he chooses to love. He is confused when Bony associates him with the white people who oppress his family. However, the more Geoffroy, Fintan and Maou separate, the more they find each other again, as their experiences bring them together in a dream they share: the dream of knowing Africa.
A dreamlike narrative structure
The dreamlike aspect of Onitsha is not only the consequence of explicit references to dreams, although there are several. One has the impression of dreaming with one's eyes open when reading this story because of the subjective and personal multi-focus narrative. As soon as the Surabaya, a ship of the Holland Africa Line, approaches the African coast, we see everything through the eyes of Fintan and Maou. Later, Geoffroy seeks to explain the scars on the faces of the Aros traders as sacred Egyptian symbols, in a language that is both erudite and delirious. Everything seems real to these characters in a world they understand for the first time, and that, barely. Fintan begins to write a story he calls “A Long Journey” while traveling on the Surabaya, whereas in fact Le Clézio's novel is made up of several initiatory journeys that oscillate between discovery and hallucination. For example, when Fintan begins to reflect on his father's dream about the Queen of Meroë, “he tried to imagine this city, in the middle of the river, this mysterious city where time had stopped. But what he saw was Onitsha, motionless by the river, with its dusty streets and houses with rusty tin roofs” (O, 135). Not only does Fintan recognize his father's dream, but he wants to be part of it even when his own experiences do not match it. According to Karen Levy, Geoffroy and Fintan are “both unable to recognize their role in the construction of the myth that haunts them” (Levy, 1998).
The ambiguous gaze of renegade settler Sabine Rodes hovers over this set of delusional visions. This disturbing character mocks Maou as much as the British in the colonial community. He fails in his efforts to manipulate his African protégés Okawho and Oya but allows himself to predict the end of the colonial empire. He plays the role of surrogate father for Fintan, far from the biological father, while drawing Maou's hatred on himself. The author gives Rodes the last word when his death in the Biafran War is announced to Fintan at the end of the book: “His name was Roderick Matthews ... an officer of the Order of the British Empire” (O, 289). Since it was he who had suggested to Geoffroy the idea of following in the footsteps of the Queen of Meroë (O, 197), he can be said to play the role of agent. He sends Geoffroy in search of an elusive and illusory desired object, highlights the moral naivety of people like Maou who dream of fraternity between colonized and colonizer, and bequeaths to Fintan a sense of loss for the colonized country which remains vivid in his memory while, in reality, the modern world has forever changed it.
In a letter to his little sister born when the family has had to leave Nigeria, Fintan says: “Now there is nothing left of what I knew” (O, 275). Yet, he declares, “I have not forgotten anything, Marima. Now, so far away, I can smell fried fish by the river. [...] Must all this disappear forever? » (O, 279). Alexia Vassilatos considers that Onitsha is built from dense networks of memories perpetually reconstituted in the form of sensations (Vassilatos, 2013, 66). The agonizing contrast between these networks and their fatal outcome reinforces Onitsha's dreamlike quality and the tenacity of Fintan’s vision of the postcolonial world. He bequeaths to his sister his memories of a land he will never see again, “like that train of images that drowned men are said to glimpse when they sink” (O, 280).
An unclassifiable book
As a work of world literature in French, Onitsha remains enigmatic and unclassifiable. A French-language work, it represents a collection of African cultures, captured in an British colonial context. It has a strong autobiographical aspect, Le Clézio having also spent several years in Nigeria from the age of eight. However, the later publication of a more openly autobiographical work, L'Africain, underlines the part played by the imaginary in Onitsha's conception. Alexia Vassilatos sees Onitsha as an “alternative genre,” occupying the margins where prose and poetry are integrated into the characters’ delirious thoughts (Vassilatos, 2013, 66). Onitsha condemns the misdeeds of colonialism without easily giving up on the dreams generated by the colonial adventure. One can easily understand why the dream-like narrative form suits this narrative that subtly slides into the ambiguous interstices of the postcolonial era.
Whether the multiple quests evoked in Onitsha reveal an effort “to dialogue with the Other and to value African culture” as suggested by Dauda Yilla (2008, 187), or a “paradoxical posture, a sign of singularity and creativity” (Moudiléno, 2011, 79), the city of Onitsha and the journey of the Queen of Meroë remain in Le Clézio’s world symbols of an intimately unknowable horizon. As the title of the last part of the book - “Far from Onitsha” - implies, this story has the effect of bringing us closer to a certain Africa in order to move us away from it.
Translated by Thierry Léger
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