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:
“The world changes, it’s true, and the boy who is standing over there on the plain amidst the tall grasses in the hot breath of wind bearing the odors of the savannah, the shrill sound of the forest, the boy feeling the dampness of the sky and the clouds upon his lips, that boy is so far from me that no story, no journey will ever make it possible for me to reach him again.”
That boy is the young Le Clézio himself, brought over from an often idyllic but occasionally dreary French childhood to rejoin the father he hardly knew after the end of World War II. Le Clézio’s father, Mauritian by birth, had been trapped in Nigeria for the duration of the war serving as a doctor, unable to get word out, or to receive news of his family’s whereabouts.
The reunion is a mixed affair, with the young Le Clézio cowed by this strange man’s unspoken rules. No talking without permission; no snacks between meals; wool socks and leather shoes required, even in the stifling Nigerian heat. The tone of complaint is muted.
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, alternating between the life of the son and his belated understanding of his father’s tormented
Le Clézio comes to respect, and feel pity, for the father he hardly knew, through telling the story of their reunion, their time together in Africa, and his father’s bittersweet later years. “What was his life like during those long years of war,” he wonders, “alone in that large, empty house, having no news of his children or the woman he loved?”
The question’s phrasing is also its coded message; his children are cordoned off, ambiguously shaded under the umbrella of his love. Le Clézio’s father — named Raoul, a fact the book never tells us — flees the strictures and formalities of Europe with his wife for the open spaces of Africa, but “[t]hat African land in which he had known the happiness of sharing his adventurous life with a woman, in Banso, in Bamenda, was the very same land that had robbed him of a family life and the love of his children.” The time apart during the war created a chasm that could never be filled, only papered over with rigor and duty.
Le Clézio, like his father, belatedly realizes that, whatever his feelings of affection for his new home, he is a colonist, his presence the guarantee of impending disaster. His home is not his, and as such, both father and son truly belong nowhere.
The text of “The African” is studded with mysterious, unlabeled photographs that bring to mind the work of W.G. Sebald. Le Clézio is also the chronicler of his own history, but without Sebald’s narrative slipperiness or air of mystery — or his wisdom. Plainspoken and even-keeled, “The African” rarely says anything that catches us off-guard. Reading it, we recognize nonetheless the cathartic properties, for Le Clézio, of having written it: “It is in writing it down that I now understand. That memory is not mine alone. It is also the memory of the time that preceded my birth, when my mother and father walked together on the highland trails, in the kingdoms of western Cameroon.”
Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @afmess.