Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Onitsha by J.M.G. LeClézio

The 2008 Nobel Prize winner for literature was a complete surprise. I had never heard the name or any of his novels. I checked with a colleague from France, and she had heard of him but had read only one of his novels. Onitsha appears to be the only work translated into English.

The story tells of Maou and her son Fintan who travel to Nigeria to meet up with Geoffrey, Maou’s husband and Fintan’s father. They arrive as the British colonial system is collapsing – Nigeria is about to be plunged into civil war.

This marvelous novel has a couple of peculiar features which make it unique and absorbing. First, it is almost entirely told through description. The author limits dialogue to only a few lines at a time, and only on rare occasions. The description, on the other hand, is so rich it defies its own description.

For example, when Fintan first sets foot in the village of Onitsha, he surveys the scene from the veranda of the family home. “At sunset the sky darkened to the west, towards Asaba, above Brokkedon Island. From the height of the terrace Fintan could survey the entire breadth of the river, could see places where the tributaries – Anambara, Omerun – joined the river, and the large flat island of Jersey, covered with reeds and trees. Downstream the river inscribed a slow curving line to the south, as vast as an arm of the sea, with the hesitant traces of small islands, like rafts adrift. The storm swirled. There were bloodied streaks in the sky, gaps in the clouds. Then very rapidly, the black cloud went back up the river, chasing before it the flying ibises still lit by the sun” (47).

Page after page the reader rides along the river in a pirogue, or walks through a grassy field, or struggles through jungle growth.

The other peculiarity involves Geoffrey’s obsession with a legend of a young queen of Meroë, who led her people to the interior of the continent to find a new land to begin their civilization anew. This portion of the story has been set into a slightly different font, and the legend becomes entangled with Geoffrey’s dreams.

The impassioned Maou causes trouble among the colonial community, and Geoffrey is forced to take his family back to Europe. They try and erase the memory of Onitsha, its people, myths, and the legend of Meroë, the last descendent of the Pharaohs. But too much of Africa and its legends has penetrated the family. It will remain with them forever.

LeClézio’s novel intertwines, colonialism, legends, and the destructive force of white invaders. I surely hope more of his work will find its way into English translations. I only hope a more professional publisher will pick up the task. This was a poorly printed, poorly bound book by The University of Nebraska Press. Five stars

--Chiron, 12/24/08

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