Thursday, 8 January 2015

A father from a different continent

Full title: The African
Author: J.M.G. Le Clézio (Translated by C. Dickson)
Genre: Non Fiction, Biography
Attributes: 181 pages, hardcover
Publisher: David R. Godine (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

In this minimally memorialistic book, where memory is busier to rebuild the stories of others than the author's own story, people grow out of seclusions like geographical outlines based on a purposefully inaccurate cartography.

Geography features large and prominent here. Really large. Really prominent. Telling a lot of the author's father's story as he lived and professed in the vastness of a wild, immaculate Africa, the book makes references to unfixed coordinates. If a mental map were to be created after the reading of the book, it would be something akin to those strategy video games where one of the tasks is to find the visible within the greatness of an overwhelmingly dark surface that hides everything from the viewer. The African is a cartographic exercise for non-citizens: for those who look at a city from without its walls.
"On the map he drew himself, my father noted the distances, not in kilometres, but in hours and days of walking time. The details noted down on the map reveal the true dimensions of that country, the reason he loved it: the river fords, the deep or tumultuous rivers, the mountainsides to be climbed, the bends in the paths, the descents into valleys that cannot be tackled on horseback, the impassable cliffs. On the maps he drew, the names make up a litany, they speak of walking in the hot sun, through the grassy plains or scaling laboriously up mountains amidst the clouds."

Le Clézio is after this type of geography because it represents a territory not his own. He had lived, along with his family, amidst the terrors, scarcities, and claustrophobies of the German occupation of France. His memories of the times and spaces before Africa are mostly of food shortages and fears of being arrested. In contrast, his father, who had spent the better part of his life working as a doctor in that carelessly open territory of colonial Africa, far from the obvious sights of the Empire and representing the same Empire only by virtue of his profession, his father, "the true African," was never in need for conventional measurements. He experienced the African world through and for its vastness. This is why his geography was truly psychogeography: an experience tied to individual, personal processes.

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. Source: Radio Mondiale
When, later in life, the former doctor was forced to return to France for retirement, he found himself ill adapted to the exactitudes of institutions, to the aseptic whiteness of hospitals, to the straight lines of urban architectures, to the names of streets and places, to the proximity of habitations, to the requirement of measuring distances in kilometres. Nothing like ‘the other country,’ "a country of distant horizons, with vaster skies, with lands stretching out as far as the eye could see." This country, indeed this multifaceted continent, is, to Le Clézio, one without mythic or fictional roots, although he finds the best description of it in literary references (even when those are used only in order to be denied):

"[This] was neither the Africa of Tartarin, nor even that of John Huston. It was rather the Africa depicted in African Farm, a real Africa, densely populated, wracked with disease and tribal wars. But powerful and exhilarating as well, with its countless children, its dances, the good humour and cheerfulness of the shepherds met along the paths."

It's because of these contradictions and exaltations that Le Clézio's book is so full of descriptions. The African is, for its greatest part, a verbose atlas, a recreation, a redrawing of lines and outlines of territories that could not be represented otherwise than through words. Through imperfect, treacherous, insufficient words.
The abundant descriptions that populate The African make it look like a rhapsody of sorts, a dangerously bucolic approach to a mentality that was far from bucolic. But there's more light brought into the text, with the recognition, very common in J.M.G Le Clézio’s oeuvre, of the event of a European's presence in Africa:
"Then my father discovered – after all those years of having felt close to the Africans, like a relative, like a friend – that the doctor was just another instrument of colonial power, no different from the policeman, the judge, or the soldier. How could it have been otherwise? Exercising medicine also meant having power over people, and medical supervision also meant political supervision."

With this realisation came, of course, the inevitable disenchantment, which dug deep into the father’s other beliefs, into his very profession:
"To him, there was something offensive about disease, once the charm of Africa had worn off."
The book ends with a series of cold reflections, inquisitive what-ifs. The father emerges out of this final section as someone who has distilled both the wilderness of Africa and the orderliness of Europe: someone whose most apparent characteristic ends up being this melange, this personal architecture: "authority and discipline, to the point of brutality." With this, the gradual drawing of the portrait is complete. It had progressed slowly from professional righteousness to hygienic radicalism, and now it's settled somewhere in the vicinity of unforgiveable violence. ‘The African,’ in his slowly evaporating glory, stands vindicated and disambiguated.