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J.M.G. Le Clézio Shows Us How It’s Done

By Geoff Wisner

Read The African, the newly translated memoir by Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio, to learn more about the author’s childhood, personality, and relationship with his father. Read it for the sometimes elegant beauty of the prose.

Just don’t read it for its insights into Africa and its people.

Why? The most efficient way to explain is to say that The African scores high on the criteria set out in Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay “How to Write About Africa.” Let’s begin.

Always use the word “Africa” or “Darkness” or “Safari” in your title.


Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book … An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these.

The cover of the US edition shows a troubled-looking child with a scarred face, standing behind a bare-breasted woman. Well done.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country.

“In Africa, the immodesty of bodies was marvelous.” “Africa was more about bodies than faces.” “Africa was already taking my face away and giving me a painful, feverish body in return…” “The African present was erasing everything that had come before.” “Africa was powerful.” “In leaving for Africa, we had changed worlds.” “To me, arriving in Africa meant entering the antechamber of the adult world.” “I am forever yearning to go back to Africa, to my childhood memory.”

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls…

“My mother speaks of the celebrations that suddenly burst forth in the villages … The tom-tom players are seated under a banyan tree, they beat the drums and the call of the music echoes into the distance. The women begin to dance, they are completely naked, except for a string of beads around their waists…. It begins at sunset, around six o’clock, and lasts till dawn of the next day. My mother and father lie on their cots of canvas webbing under the mosquito net, listening to the tom-toms beating in an unbroken rhythm, with hardly a flutter, like the beating of a heart.”

…and eat things no other humans eat.

Le Clézio’s father only “half-believed” the tales of cannibalism, but didn’t mind repeating them.

“In such and such a village, they say, not far from Obudu, the inhabitants have a custom of stretching a rope across the road when a lone traveler ventures out on a bicycle. As soon as he falls, the poor man is immediately clubbed over the head, dragged behind a wall and his body cut up to be eaten.”

Taboo subjects: … references to African writers or intellectuals…

Oh no! Almost at the finish line, the author slips up. On page 100 of this 106-page book , Le Clézio quotes from Chinua Achebe’s poem “Christmas in Biafra.” Fortunately it’s only once, and it’s in the context of cruelty, war, and starvation.

Mention near the beginning how much you love Africa.

Page 1: “For a long time I dreamt that my mother was black…. Then when my father came back to live with us in France, I discovered that in fact it was he who was the African. It was hard for me to admit that.”

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendor.

The first half of The African actually contains no African characters at all — none, at least, who are given a name — unless you count Le Clézio’s father, who considers himself an African despite having made (by his own reckoning) only one African friend during his years on the continent.  

On page 62, Le Clézio finally names some Africans. They are his parents’ employees Njong, Chindefondi, and Philippus, the head porter and  loyal servant. “My mother said that several times he’d helped her cross flooding rivers, holding her up over his head above the water.”

“Old Ahidjo,” who worked for Le Clézio’s father, is a servant so loyal that he doesn’t even accept money.

“He took care of everything, the supplies, the itinerary through the remote regions, the relations with the village chiefs, the porters’ salaries, the condition of the travelers’ cabins. He accompanied him on the journeys in the beginning, but his advanced age and his state of health made it impossible for him to continue doing so. He wasn’t paid for the work he did.”

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African … [H]er breasts are flat and empty.

The first African in Le Clézio’s memoir is described, though not named, on page 6. “The naked body of that woman, full of folds, of wrinkles, her skin sagging like an empty water pouch, her elongated, flaccid breasts hanging down on her stomach, her dull, cracked, grayish skin.” To be fair, this particular woman may not be starving.

Describe, in detail, naked breasts … or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals.

From the first chapter (“Bodies”): “[T]he bodies of African women on the paths around the house or at the market by the river. Their stature, their heavy breasts, the shiny skin on their backs. The boys’ penises, their pink, circumcised glands [sic].”

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters.

Note the empathy conveyed in this dramatic scene of a mother scorpion’s tragic attempt to save her children:

“He went to get a bottle of rubbing alcohol from his medicine cabinet, he poured some over the scorpion and struck a match. For some strange reason, the fire began burning around the creature, forming a ring of blue flames, and the female scorpion struck a tragic stance, claws lifted skyward, body tensed, raising the clearly visible venomous hook at the end of her tail over her children. A second squirt of alcohol engulfed her entirely in flames. The incident could not have lasted more than a few seconds, and yet I have the impression that I sat there watching her die for a long time. The female scorpion pivoted several times, her tail waving spasmodically. Her offspring were already dead and fell shriveled from her back. Then she remained still, claws folded onto her chest in resignation, and the tall flames went out.”

Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla.

Speaking of his father’s “deep-rooted repulsion … for the colonial system,” Le Clézio mentions the district officer “who got a kick out of having me touch the skulls of the gorillas he’d killed and showing me the hills in back of his house claiming that in the evening you could hear the thumping noises the apes made beating on their chests to provoke him.”

Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa.

“I can sense the emotion he felt crossing the high plateaus and the grassy plains … the blue outlines of the peaks emerging from the clouds like mirages, bathed in the African light, the harsh blaze of noon, the softened glow of twilight when the red earth and the straw-colored grasses seem to be lit from within by a sacred fire.”

That ought to do it.

Wide empty spaces and game are critical — Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces.

“I have the impression that the plain was as vast as a sea. I would stand on the edge of the cement slab that served as a walkway around the cabin for hours, my gaze lost in that immensity…”

“This was a country of distant horizons, with vaster skies, with lands stretching out as far as the eye could see.”

Bravo, sir! Your book has achieved one of the highest “How to Write About Africa” scores in modern times. To have done this in only 106 pages, including pictures, is no small achievement. 

Published Dec 12, 2013   Copyright 2013 Geoff Wisner

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