Like many others around the world, I was also a bit surprised with this years selection of Nobel Prize for Literature. Not having heard his name before ( leave alone reading his books), or seen any of his books in India earlier, I was told by a friend that Rupa Publishers have plans to release many French Books in India, which include that of Le Clezio.
The first book was available at the book shops and I had my copy last week. Though it is may not be the best book of JMG Le Clezio, Onitsha is an important book of his bibliography and have some good remarks by fellow readers.
Fintan ( a young boy) travels with his Italian mother to Africa in the year 1948 to join his English father whom he has never met. Geoffrey, stationed at Onitsha, a Nigerian town on the bank of the river Niger, is serving the East Africa Company managing their warehouse operations. After his initial apprehension, he start recognising the exotic beauty of the place and its people, befriending the local boy and running and exploring the plants and animal world on bare foot.
Maou, his mother was also taken aback initially with the place as she expected the place to be as very exotic and wild. " She had imagined naked savages, painted for war. Adventurers, missionaries, doctors consumed by the tropics, heroic women school teachers. In Onitsha she had found a society of boring and sententious civil servants, dressed in ridiculous outfits and head gear, who spent their time playing bridge, drinking, and spying on each other, and their wives, cramped by their respectable principles, counting their pennies and speaking harshly to their maids, waiting for the return ticket to England".
Soon the brutality and the greed of the colonisers have come to light to the Maou and Fintan and the rift between her and the British rulers of the place starts widening. Marooned at the house with no one else to interact with, she too starts exploring the people and their lives, fascinated by their rituals and culture.
Geoffrey is engrossed in his project of the history of the African people and their migratory culture and the settlement. He dreams of the gods and the people and their voyage, partly from the folklore and partly from the earlier works of his predecessor.
While the British colonisers continue their act of atrocities and abuse of power, Geoffrey continues his fascination towards their culture, which do not go well with his superiors. As Sabine Rhodes tells Maou, "My dear signorita, you must realise we see people like your husband pass throgh here every day, people who think they are going to change every thing. I am noy implying that he is wrong, any more than you are, but one must be realistic, one must see things as they are and not as one would like them to be. We are colonisers, not the benefactors of mankind."
Soon he was given with the orders of deportation, and was replaced by another Britisher, not before the seeds of rebellion started. Sabine Rhodes, another British National, already a miscast in the colony recognises the inevitable. " The days are numbered for all of us, all of us! The empire is finished, signorita, it's crumbling on every side, turning to dust; the great ship of empire is sinking. But I shan't leave. I shall stay here to see it all, that's my mission, my vocation, to watch the ship go under".
A beautifully written book, about the intolerance and brutality of colonial powers and the destruction of native culture and exploitation of their resources. The prose is very clear and straight forward , and look at the events at difference perspective of the child, mother and the father. After a somewhat dragging initial pages of their voyage to Onitsha, the novel is a superb read.
The book released in 1991, is supposed to be based on his own experience in his childhood in Nigeria. It is a novel of the greed of few countries of the world to master the natural resources of the world, by deploying their military power, destroying native civilisations, disarming and subjugating the natives. The role of the countries are now being replaced by large corporates as we understand at the end of the novel. The tactics deployed are similar and often supported by the economical and military mightiness of the nations of their origin.
PS : While the efforts of Rupa Publications have to be lauded , in getting these books in India at an affordable price, I wasn't all that impressed with the print and presentation quality of the book. To me, it had a printing and styling similar to that of the 'pirated', locally printed paper-backs of popular books available at the road sides, next to forum mall and other parts of the city.
Jean Mari Gustav Le Clezio . Translated by Alison Anderson