The Story of a Writer’s Father

by CHARLES R. LARSON

J. M. G. Le Clézio’s father, a military doctor, first went to West Africa in 1928 as part of the British colonial administration.  Earlier, he had practiced for two years in Guiana, but the work there was unrewarding.  Thus the shift to what in 1928 was still known as West Cameroon, a beautiful disputed mountainous area between Eastern Nigeria and Cameroon.  I can attest to the singular beauty of those mountains which I visited in 1963 when little would have changed since Le Clézio’s father’s arrival years earlier.  Le Clézio’s story of his father’s African years are gloriously redemptive, the ideal of what should be the goal of all Western invaders of the continent: humility, humanity, care and concern for indigenous people’s traditions and identities rarely exemplified by those representing colonial powers.  The fact is, however, that the child who narrates his father’s journey into West Africa between the two world wars (and his own subsequent return twenty years later, in 1948), does not understand his elder for many years.

There’s an irony here. The child and his brother were both conceived on the continent, where the elder Le Clézio took his wife as soon as the two of them were married. That was shortly before World War II.  Worried about their safety, Le Clézio sent his family back to Europe.  When the war continued unabated, the elder Le Clézio tried to return to his family, crossing the continent, up to North Africa, where he was denied the possibility of continuing, so he returned all the way back to the location of his medical practice in West Africa.

The territory that he traveled to treat his patients was enormous; but he loved his position as a quasi-itinerant medical doctor.  His son describes his work: “The enemies were called kwashiorkor, vibrio bacteria, tapeworm, bilharzia, smallpox, amoebic dysentery.  Confronted with these enemies, my father must have found his clezioafricanmedical bag to be very lightweight.  Scalpel, surgical clamps, trephine, stethoscope, tourniquets, and a few basic tools, including the brass syringe which he later used for giving me vaccinations. Antibiotics, cortisone didn’t exist yet.  Sulfonamides were rare, his powders and unguents looked more like the potions of a witch doctor.  Vaccinations were available in very restricted quantities, for combating epidemics.”

But what a remarkable man, traveling by horse with an interpreter and a couple of porters. And what extraordinary talents he had.  “The man who had trained to be a doctor in remote countries–who had learned to be ambidextrous, able to operate on himself using a mirror or to stitch up his own hernia.”
By the time he was reunited with his family (when they returned to Cameroon in 1948) the younger Le Clézio was eight years old.  He loved the “days of running through the tall grasses in Ogoja” with his brother, the freedom of Africa.  And he loved only as a child can battle termites, army ants, and moths— even mosquitoes and cockroaches.  The problem was not the environment but his father who had become pessimistic, cranky, and authoritative.

The younger man speculates that his father was broken by the war.  The colonial office assigned him to a hospital, which was a kind of prison compared to the expansiveness of the country he had known in his earlier years as a traveling doctor.  The assignment put him in close proximity with other expatriates, the colonial world that he loathed: “Its brazen injustice, its cocktail parties and neatly attired golfers, its servants, its fifteen-year-old ebony mistress-prostitutes brought in through the back door and its official wives puffing in the heat and taking their resentment out on their servants over a pair of gloves, some dusty furniture, or broken china.”

J. M. G. Le Clézio’s The African is a lament for an Africa that no longer exists.  For the African continent, “The arrival of modernity did not bring the expected benefits.  What had disappeared, in my father’s eyes, was the charm of the villages, the slow, carefree life punctuated by the rhythm of agricultural tasks.  The lure of money, venality, a certain degree of violence had replaced all of that.”  The year his father died, AIDs broke out.  Not too long before that, in the part of West Africa where Le Clézio lived, the Biafran war led to the starvation of a million children.  By then, the younger man began to understand his father, whom he honors, calling him “the African” because of his life helping African people.

J. M. G. Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2008, just as his work was becoming available in English, though he had published over forty volumes in French.  The African, a beautiful book, proves the worthiness of that choice.  David R. Godine should be commended for bringing his work out in English, in gorgeous translations by C. Dickson.

J. M. G. Le Clézio: The African

Trans. by C. Dickson

David R. Godine, 106 pp., $22.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal