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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 medical 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.