FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 28, 2017
Mike Whitney
Ending Syria’s Nightmare will Take Pressure From Below 
Mark Kernan
Memory Against Forgetting: the Resonance of Bloody Sunday
John McMurtry
Fake News: the Unravelling of US Empire From Within
Ron Jacobs
Mad Dog, Meet Eris, Queen of Strife
Michael J. Sainato
State Dept. Condemns Attacks on Russian Peaceful Protests, Ignores Those in America
Ted Rall
Five Things the Democrats Could Do to Save Their Party (But Probably Won’t)
Linn Washington Jr.
Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Hiring Practices: Privilege or Prejudice?
Philippe Marlière
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Presidential Hopeful, is Good News for the French Left
Norman Pollack
Political Cannibalism: Eating America’s Vitals
Bruce Mastron
Obamacare? Trumpcare? Why Not Cubacare?
David Macaray
Hollywood Screen and TV Writers Call for Strike Vote
Christian Sorensen
We’ve Let Capitalism Kill the Planet
Rodolfo Acuna
What We Don’t Want to Know
Binoy Kampmark
The Futility of the Electronics Ban
Andrew Moss
Why ICE Raids Imperil Us All
March 27, 2017
Robert Hunziker
A Record-Setting Climate Going Bonkers
Frank Stricker
Why $15 an Hour Should be the Absolute Minimum Minimum Wage
Melvin Goodman
The Disappearance of Bipartisanship on the Intelligence Committees
Patrick Cockburn
ISIS’s Losses in Syria and Iraq Will Make It Difficult to Recruit
Russell Mokhiber
Single-Payer Bernie Morphs Into Public Option Dean
Gregory Barrett
Can Democracy Save Us?
Dave Lindorff
Budget Goes Military
John Heid
Disappeared on the Border: “Chase and Scatter” — to Death
Mark Weisbrot
The Troubling Financial Activities of an Ecuadorian Presidential Candidate
Robert Fisk
As ISIS’s Caliphate Shrinks, Syrian Anger Grows
Michael J. Sainato
Democratic Party Continues Shunning Popular Sanders Surrogates
Paul Bentley
Nazi Heritage: the Strange Saga of Chrystia Freeland’s Ukrainian Grandfather
Christopher Ketcham
Buddhism in the Storm
Thomas Barker
Platitudes in the Wake of London’s Terror Attack
Mike Hastie
Insane Truths: a Vietnam Vet on “Apocalypse Now, Redux”
Binoy Kampmark
Cyclone Watch in Australia
Weekend Edition
March 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump is Obama’s Legacy: Will this Break up the Democratic Party?
Eric Draitser
Donald Trump and the Triumph of White Identity Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nothing Was Delivered
Andrew Levine
Ryan’s Choice
Joshua Frank
Global Coal in Freefall, Tar Sands Development Drying Up (Bad News for Keystone XL)
Anthony DiMaggio
Ditching the “Deep State”: The Rise of a New Conspiracy Theory in American Politics
Rob Urie
Boris and Natasha Visit Fantasy Island
John Wight
London and the Dreary Ritual of Terrorist Attacks
Paul Buhle
The CIA and the Intellectuals…Again
David Rosen
Why Did Trump Target Transgender Youth?
Vijay Prashad
Inventing Enemies
Ben Debney
Outrage From the Imperial Playbook
M. Shadee Malaklou
An Open Letter to Duke University’s Class of 2007, About Your Open Letter to Stephen Miller
Michael J. Sainato
Bernie Sanders’ Economic Advisor Shreds Trumponomics
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail