The African is a short autobiographical account of a pivotal moment in Nobel-Prize-winning author J. M. G. Le Clézio’s childhood. In 1948, young Le Clézio, with his mother and brother, left behind a still-devastated Europe to join his father, a military doctor in Nigeria, from whom he’d been separated by the war. In Le Clézio’s characteristically intimate, poetic voice, the narrative relates both the dazzled enthusiasm the child feels at discovering newfound freedom in the African savannah and his torment at discovering the rigid authoritarian nature of his father. The power and beauty of the book reside in the fact that both discoveries occur simultaneously.
While primarily a memoir of the author’s boyhood, The African is also Le Clézio’s attempt to pay a belated homage to the man he met for the first time in Africa at age eight and was never quite able to love or accept. His reflections on the nature of his relationship to his father become a chapeau bas to the adventurous military doctor who devoted his entire life to others. Though the author palpably renders the child’s disappointment at discovering the nature of his estranged father, he communicates deep admiration for the man who tirelessly trekked through dangerous regions in an attempt to heal remote village populations.
The major preoccupations of Le Clézio’s life and work can be traced back to these early years in Africa. The question of colonialism, so central to the author, was a primary source of contention for his father: “Twenty-two years in Africa had inspired him with a deep hatred of all forms of colonialism.” Le Clézio suggests that however estranged we may be from our parents, however foreign they may appear, they still leave an indelible mark on us. His father’s anti-colonialism becomes The African‘s legacy to his son, who would later become a world-famous champion of endangered peoples and cultures.
Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in 1940 in Nice, France. His first novel, Le Procès-Verbal (The Interrogation), won the Prix Renaudot in 1963 and established his reputation as one of France’s preeminent writers. He has published more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Prospector (Godine, 1993) and Desert (Godine, 2009). He and his wife currently divide their time between Nice, New Mexico, and the island of Mauritius.
Praise for The African
Le Clézio is ever the master at rendering existence at the level of sensation with a daring and admirable freshness of language.
—Peter Brooks, New York Times
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. […] 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.
—Michael Dirda, Washington Post
The past has receded, become so distant that no memory, no attempt to summon it can possibly bring it back. Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clézio tells us as much, even as his slim memoir, The African, valiantly attempts to call back a lost time. […] Le Clézio’s book is as much a speculative biography of a man he now realizes he hardly knew as a memoir of a complicated childhood. It is a memory palace, a deliberately disordered evocation of the past that hopscotches through time.
—Saul Austerlitz, Boston Globe
This is a fluid translation from the French version published in 2004 and a fine introduction to a prolific and relatively unrecognized writer. Recommended.
—Lonnie Weatherby, McGill University, Library Journal
A slim yet resonant autobiographical entry from the Nobel laureate’s early years in West Africa […] A vivid depiction of a splintered childhood and the lovely wholeness procured from it.
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