For many years now, the publishing house of David R. Godine has been producing some of the most attractive books of our time. Witness this little volume of reminiscences by J.M.G. Le Clézio, the recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature.
While nowhere near as grand as some of those earlier Godine publications focusing on art and book history, “The African” reveals a comparable attention to detail, thanks to the care of designer Carl W. Scarbrough. The striking dust jacket close-up of an anxious young boy, the map-decorated endpapers, the simple black and tan boards dominated by a blind-stamped vignette of the African landscape, heavy coated paper stock for better reproducing the book’s many old photographs and, not least, the harmonious Minion typeface — all these remind us, in this era of utilitarian e-texts and ugly print-on-demand publications, that an actual physical book can still be a pleasure to hold and own.
“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.
When the family was finally reunited in Africa after the war, Le Clézio was 8, and his father had become not just a stranger, but a different man. He was “worn, prematurely aged by the equatorial climate. He’d become irritable due to the theophylline he took for his asthma, had grown bitter from loneliness, from having lived all the years of the war cut off from the rest of the world, not knowing what had become of his family, unable to leave his post to go to the aid of his wife and children or even to send them any money.”
Le Clézio repeatedly underscores what he then perceived as his father’s autocratic manner and extreme, inflexible habits. “His obsession with hygiene led him to do amazing things, like washing his hands with alcohol and then lighting a match to them.” The doctor even insisted that his sons wear wool socks and shiny leather shoes, which they immediately took off once he left for his day’s work. Instead, the two boys ran in the savannah barefoot, played with the local children, knocked over termite castles and dodged the soldier ants — “fierce, red, with eyes and mandibles, able to secrete poison and attack whomever they encountered. They were the true rulers of Ogoja.”
Although Le Clézio maintains that he isn’t nostalgic by nature, he recalls those vanished days with obvious pleasure: “The older boys took care of the younger ones, they were never alone, never left to fend for themselves. Games, discussions, and light work alternated with no specific schedule: they gathered dead wood and dried manure patties for fuel while out for a walk, they spent hours drawing water at the wells while they chatted, they played trictrac on the dusty ground, or sat in front of the door to my father’s house gazing out into the distance, not waiting for anything.”
After his forced retirement, the senior Le Clézio returned to France but couldn’t really adjust. “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. The man with the calloused hands of a surgeon, who could saw through a bone or put a splint in place, who could make knots and splices — that man no longer used his energy and knowledge for anything but those minute unrewarded tasks that most people in retirement refuse to do: with equal application, he would wash the dishes, repair the broken floor tiles in his apartment, wash his clothing, darn his socks, build benches and shelves out of crate wood. Africa had left a mark on him that fit closely with the legacy of the spartan upbringing he’d received from his family in Mauritius.”
And then the 1968 Biafran nightmare began: “To gain control of the oil wells at the mouth of the Calabar River, Ibos and Yorubas [started] exterminating one another, as the Western world looked on with indifference.” The news photographs from Nigeria simply broke Dr. Le Clézio’s heart. “Along the roads, on the banks of the rivers, at the entrances to villages, hundreds of thousand of children were dying of hunger or dehydration. It was a cemetery as vast as a country.”
Apart from award-winning novels, starting with “The Interrogation,” J.M.G. Le Clézio has written repeatedly about ecology, landscape and colonialism, paying particular attention to Africa, Mexico, Central America and his family’s native Mauritius. Given that he has produced more than 40 books, “The African” can represent only one aspect of, in the words of the Nobel committee, “an author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.” Still, this brief memoir provides a good entry point, honoring, as it does, Le Clézio’s father and mother and his own lost African childhood.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
By J.M.G. Le Clézio
Translated from the French by C. Dickson
Godine. 106 pp. $22.95