The African by J.M.G. Le Clézio

By Rob Packer

<i>L'africain</i> by Le Clézio

As a child, I sometimes wondered what my life would have been, if I had been born in another country or to different parents: who would my friends be, what language I would speak, would this hypothetical me imagine himself born to English parents in suburban London?

J.M.G. Le Clézio (1940-) uses a similar hypothesis to start his autobiographical essay, The African (or L’Africain, 2004), which explores his father’s decades of service as a doctor in Guyana, Cameroon and Nigeria, as well as the author’s own relationship with him:

“For a long time I dreamt that my mother was black. I had invented a history, a past for me to flee reality on my return from Africa, in that country, in that city where I knew no one, where I had become a stranger. Then I discovered, after my father retired and returned to live with us in France, that it was he who was the African”.

Brought up in Mauritius, educated in London, his father finds “a pretext to break with European society” and becomes a field doctor in remote areas of British colonies. Having escaped Europe, he finally finds a “taste of freedom” in the highlands of Cameroon with his new wife. For a man who seems to be trying to escape Europe, it can’t be a coincidence that he is happiest in a place only marked with a question mark on a German map from 1913.

This idyll comes to an end when Le Clézio’s father and mother are separated by the Second World War: the author grows up in Nice with his mother and grandparents, while his father is in a remote village in southeastern Nigeria, cut off from the world, without news from his family”. And Nigeria is a different Africa where life is different: the illnesses are more severe and European doctors are seen as amputators and executioners. The paradox of his break with Europe is that when he wants to leave Africa, he finds himself trapped.

The effects were severe: the “interminable silence” had made his father dour, taciturn, a stranger—this word echoes through the book. When the family move to Nigeria and Le Clézio finally meets him at the age of 8, he finds him “pessimistic and authoritarian”, and so different from all the other adults he had previously met to be barely comprehensible. This lack of understanding seems to continue throughout life and it is telling that Le Clézio overwhelmingly describes his father’s habits, as if still trying to fathom him: in contrast, there is no (or very little) conversation between father and son.

But for a man so quiet and alienated from almost everything, actions sometimes explain in a way that words can’t, and the book’s most haunting image is that of the father, now retired in France, eating chicken with a scalpel and forceps. Ultimately, the routine he built up over years of solitude has become so deeply rooted that it’s “as if he never left Africa”. For me, nothing describes this alienation more clearly, or more touchingly.

The African (unfortunately, only available in French) is a beautifully written account of Le Clézio’s attempts to understand his father better, but it also questions the traditional relationship between identity and place: are we “from” the place we were born and grew up in, or are we “from” the place that had the biggest influence on our character and habits? The book makes a convincing case for the latter.

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