“The African” consists of seven interrelated essays in which Le Clézio reconstructs the early life of his parents in Cameroon and remembers his own childhood in Nigeria. “My father came to Africa in 1928,” he writes, “after having served two years as an itinerant doctor on the rivers in British Guiana. He left in the early 1950s when the army decided he had passed retirement age and could no longer be of service.” For nearly a quarter-century, Le Clézio’s father spent most of his time in villages and outposts far from “civilization.” On his own self-drawn map, this conscientious doctor noted distances, “not in kilometers, but in hours or days of walking time.”
His father, Le Clézio writes, hated the “stereotypical side of colonial society, the businessmen dressed in suits and hats, impeccably folded umbrellas, the stifling salons where Englishwomen in low-cut dresses sit fanning themselves, the terraces of clubs where agents from Lloyd’s, from Glyn Mills, from Barclays smoke their cigars, exchanging comments about the weather — it’s a tough country, old chap — and the servants in tailcoats and white gloves silently make their rounds carrying cocktails on silver trays.”
Dr. Le Clézio even brought his young wife with him into the bush, where his work took him hundreds of miles from other white people. No matter. As Le Clézio says, “I only know that when my mother decided to marry my father and to go and live in Cameroon, her Parisian friends had said to her, ‘What, with the savages?’ and she, after everything my father had told her, simply responded, ‘They’re no more savage than the people in Paris!’ ”
During the 1930s, the young couple were completely happy in their simple, rewarding life on “the high plateaus of West Cameroon, the gentle hills of Bamenda and Banso.” But then, on a trip home to be near her parents when she was having her second child, Le Clézio’s mother was trapped in France by the German invasion. Her husband desperately crossed the Sahara to reach her — but border guards forced his return to Nigeria. For years, Dr. Le Clézio heard nothing about the fate of those he loved most.