None of J.M.G. Le Clézio’s other works is truly comparable to The African, which is neither fiction nor travelogue nor ethno-historical essay. In a colonial Nigerian setting, several characters from his novel Onitsha (1991) such as Fintan, Geoffroy and Maria Louisa resemble the autobiographical representations of the narrator, his father and mother in The African. While Onitsha's narrator invents his tale based on childhood memories, the narrator of The African must look for a father whom he can neither reinvent nor understand. According to Damamme-Gilbert, “[Onitsha] certainly explored and represented very powerfully the emotions of childhood […] however, by telling a story he developed a meaning, a symbolic construction where the writer’s ego could fade […] [In The African] the truth of reality is observed analytically” (Damamme-Gilbert, 2008, 26). Seeking to represent the father’s viewpoint, Le Clézio turns to photographs inherited from him. Cécile Meynard notes the crucial role of this medium: “The photos presented in the book are […] revealing both of the personal sensitivity of the bush doctor and of his vision of Africa, and of Le Clézio's relationship to this father and to this continent: two subjectivities overlap” (Meynard, 2014, 46). As Mary Vogl notes, Le Clézio “manages to lend words to his father who expresses himself better through photographs” (Vogl, 2005, 81).
He was the African
Le Clézio explains in a prologue how he conceived this project: “For a long time I dreamt that my mother was Black. I’d made up a life story, a past for myself, so I could flee reality when I returned from Africa to this country, to this city where I didn't know anyone, where I’d become a stranger. Then when my father came back to live with us in France upon his retirement, I discovered that in fact it was he who was the African. It was hard for me to admit that. I had to go back in time, start all over again, try to understand. I wrote this little book in memory of that experience” (A, 3). Faced with the social alienation he experienced in Nice, he wanted to imagine that Africa was his native land. With the father's return, he realized that the Africa he had built rested on the story of a father he didn't know well. He must understand the father’s “Africanness” to atone for having forgotten him.
But The African is more successful in confirming the strength of this memory lapse than correcting it. While some descriptions of the photos refer to the parents’ presence, in those that Le Clézio has chosen to include these characters are conspicuous by their absence. For example, he describes a portrait where his parents “pose next to King Memfoy of Banso” (A, 74), while the photo identified as King Memfoy (A, 68) shows this monarch sitting alone. This visual erasure is reinforced by numerous confessions of the fundamentally elusive character of the father. The first time he met him, in 1948 (the mother and two sons were unable to join him in Ogoja, Nigeria because of World War II), his father was “a stranger, and even more than that, almost an enemy” (A, 89). The narrator reflects on the father he has not had until then: “One should have grown up listening to a father tell his life story, sing songs, accompany his boys hunting lizards or catching crawfish in the Aiya river […] But what is the point of dreaming? None of this was possible.” (A, 93). According to Damamme-Gilbert: “by analyzing the difficulties, not to say the impossibility of their meeting, while at the same time recognizing what his father bequeathed to him and the crucial importance of this heritage for him, [...] he finally settles for good an oedipal relationship that is impossible to resolve” (Damamme-Gilbert, 2008, 27). Le Clézio would later follow some of the same paths his father had walked in South America: “I remember the twinkle in his eye when I told him that I had spoken to the Indians about him, and that they invited him to return to the rivers” (A, 53). This “twinkle” underlines the need for sharing that underlies the story.
The African, but from which Africa?
Vernier-Larochette highlights the connection between these problematic father-son relations and Le Clézio's choice of iconographic representations: “If the writer's primary intention was to better understand this man with whom the filial bond was tenuous, his quest leads him to discover that what connects them, and is the key to this novel, is the African soil and its inhabitants, revealed by the choice of photos inserted in the story.” (Vernier-Larochette, 2012, 266). If the father who was “a foreigner, almost an enemy” was the African, it is because Le Clézio must associate him with Africa. What is the meaning of this toponym in the imaginary universe of this story?
The father's Africa is set in a continuum linking his family’s Mauritian origins, his time in Guyana and his medical work in colonial Africa. According to Vernier-Larochette “although the writing traces the father's travels in British Guiana, Cameroon, Nigeria, first as a single man then recently married and finally a father, the only photos [Le Clézio] discloses are those that correspond to his youth when he derives his enthusiasm from this African soil which his son will then absorb” (Vernier-Larochette, 2012, 277). Since the family's eviction from their home in Mauritius, his father had always sought a country where he would be free, productive and reunited with the Mauritian first cousin he married. The time that the young couple spends in Cameroon corresponds best to this continuity. The father will be the only colonial doctor in a huge territory: “For more than fifteen years, this country will be his. "(69). On the other hand, the stay in Ogoja corresponds to the separation from his wife who returns to France to give birth to their first child, the war which separates them, and a less idyllic Africa, which reflects a dysphoric colonial world: “His contact with the sick is no longer the same. [...] The doctor is not the man who brings them the virtues of Western medicine and who shares his knowledge with the village elders. He is a stranger whose reputation has spread across the land [...] another instrument of colonial power, no different from the policeman, the judge or the soldier” (A, 83).
Le Clézio's Africa does indeed evolve according to the ups and downs of the colonial adventure. Hence the recurring theme of anti-colonialism which underlies the narrative and which unites father and son in a common cause. Le Clézio dismisses anything that evokes colonial Africa from the Africa he shares with his father. Realizing how much his father hated the colonial system, he wonders, “Where does this instinctive revulsion I have felt since childhood for the colonial system come from?” (A, 59), a question that allows him to combine his father's words, heard by chance, with his own memories of an oppressive and violent system.
The father, the son and Africa: the game of violence.
Alant reminds us that “according to Le Clézio, there is indeed deplorable violence. […] The violence of repression, of disappointment, of unhappiness” (Alant, 2013, 245). Through his strict discipline, the father allows his own frustrations as an reluctant colonizer to show through: “I was only a child, quite indifferent to the power of the empire. But my father followed its rules as if it alone gave meaning to life” (A, 18). When the narrator and his brother destroy termite mounds in a gesture of gratuitous violence, it was, he says, that “perhaps our way of throwing off our father’s draconian authority, returning blow for blow with our sticks” (A, 21). According to Alant, “Le Clézio clearly recognizes a colonist’s behavior in this surge of violence” (Alant, 2013, 346). In Ogoja, the narrator discovers an “open, real [violence] that made [his] body tingle” (A, 11). Limited initially to the forces of nature, the violence associated with the Ogoja region also becomes an endemic aspect of the region which contrasts in his mind with “gentleness and sense of humor” of the Africans of the Cameroon region where his parents had been happy before the war (A, 84). Ogoja was the Africa that hardened his father, while it left on the son the mark of a more primordial world, a world too hard to bear without the softening memory of another more innocent and purer Africa where his parents could travel together. Commenting on a photo of Victoria Bay in Cameroon, the narrator says of his father: “Perhaps he’d thought, upon his arrival, that he would find part of his lost innocence, the memories that circumstances had torn from his heart?” (61).
By remaining locked in the closed circuit of his family’s memory, where the innocence of the Mauritian family translates into the innocence of a pre-colonial or simply a-colonial Africa, Le Clézio seeks to resolve a problem of personal memory, filial relationships and collective memory inextricably linked to what he sees as the destiny of the African continent.
Translated by Mary Vogl
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