In the waters of the Dark Continent!
Onitsha by 2008 Nobel prize winner in literature, J M G Clezio, was a surprisingly pleasant read. When I started it, I didn’t mean to finish it. Just browse. But in five hours I had gone through it, right up to the end. It’s an honest, if a limited account of Africa. Rather, it is more an African experience by a European, than a book about Africa.
Onitsha is the story of a European child, Fintan, who is migrating to the Nigerian town of Onitsha. It begins with the journey on the ship Surabaya. Clezio descries all the small ports and towns minutely. We flow along with Surabaya, keeping Africa at a distance, but never losing sight of it. We feel its strangeness, its frightening otherness, but also its irresistible charm.
After arriving at Onitsha, Africa overwhelms Fintan and Maou, his mother, as well as the reader. Clezio then writes about the usual European experience of languor and lethargy of Africa. The descriptions of Niger River are full of it. Losing the sense of time; feeling the lethargy of Africa; absorbing the vast stillness of a strange continent. We feel it all in the works of Doris Lessing and J M Coetzee too, but for Clezio it is neither lethal, like is it for Lessing, nor is it sense-numbing, like it is in Coetzee’s works. Unlike Coetzee and Lessing, Clezio falls for the dreamlike languor of Africa and the Niger River. Everything from rain to wind comes alive and the reader starts looking at Africa in a way which is similar to that of a native.
Here is an example:
“All at once she understood what she had learned in coming here, to Onitsha, and what she could never have learned elsewhere. Slowness, that was it, a very long and regular movement, like the water of the river flowing towards to sea, like the clouds, like the sweltering afternoon heat, when light filled the house and the tin roofs were like the walls of a furnace. Life came to a halt, as if time were weighted. Everything became imprecise, there was nothing left but the water flowing downstream, this liquid trunk with its multitude of ramifications, its sources, its streams secreted in the forest.”[ Clezio, J M G, Onitsha, Rupa Publications, p.120, 2008]
Clezio speaks about colonial repression and how it destroyed the native cultures. The Yoruba and Egyptian myths discussed in the novel mirror it. The vision is limited and there are the familiar exploitation stories, but Clezio is not embittered and at last the reader is left with a pleasant under-taste in his mouth.
The style is accessible, not like post-modern gibberish, usual in French writing these days. Clezio spares his readers the persistent use of present simple for narration, with a few exceptions and I, on my part, am thankful for it.
It feels somewhere that the development of thought is not proper, but overall Onitsha is an entirely readable novel; not great, but an experience worth having.