The novel Onitsha written by French author and 2008 Nobel laureate J. M. G. Le Clézio is a beautiful piece of fiction. Originally written in French and translated into English in 1997, it bears prose that steals your heart. Le Clézio can sustain quiet tension in a book and build up suspense. It does get silly in places where it succumbs to a puzzlingly mythical babble in which case it deteriorates from haunting prose to malarial hallucinations about the deities of Egypt and Ethiopia. As for the content and what it says about how the West sees Africans, it is an ugly book for it reveals the insidious patronizing attitudes of white liberals.
According to the blurb, “Onitsha tells the story of Fintan, a youth who travels to Africa in 1948 with his Italian mother to join the English father he has never met. Initially enchanted by the exotic world he discovers in Onitsha, a bustling city prominently situated on the eastern bank of the River Niger, Fintan gradually comes to recognise the intolerance and brutality of the colonial system and gives the novel a notably direct, horrified perspective on racism and colonialism.” I agree with the blurb for different reasons. I think Onitsha is a racist book. You can smell Africa in Le Clézio’s Onitsha. Unfortunately, Africa reeks in his imagination: “Fintan breathed in the odour. It entered him, soaked into his body. Odour of this dusty earth, odour of the very blue sky, the gleaming palm trees, the white houses. Odour of women and children dressed in rags. Odour which possesses the town” (p20)
Hear Fintan’s surprise as he comes in contact with Africans, when their ship lands in Africa from Europe: “Fintan discovered the source of the sound: the entire foredeck of the Surabaya was crowded with blacks! They crouched down and were beating with hammers on the hatches, the hull and the frames to remove the rust.” Blacks! You almost hear ‘Vermin!’ The first time he saw us, we were immediately labeled the other, apart from whites, human-like but not quite. In 1948. And once the book encounters our humanity, everything starts to get wretched, dark and savage. Europe is light; Africa is darkness. In 1948, the visiting white expatriate sees Africa as exotica and the otherness of the African reeks of savagery. We are talking of a time when our folks were returning home from England, armed with the Golden Fleece. In 1948, Nigeria’s premier university, The University of Ibadan was founded. This was after the era that inspired Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood, that wholesome memoir of childhood and family values. This is not the same Nigeria of Nnamdi Azikiwe’s epic autobiography, My Odyssey that so wonderfully captured the intellectual passion of 1930’s Africa.
In this semi-autobiographical tale, Le Clézio exposes the racism of the colonialists in the era in copious detail. Fintan and his mother Maou are saddened by the verbal and physical abuse that blacks endure in the hands of insensitive whites and the experience is quite gruesome. Black prisoners work in chains digging swimming pools for the pleasure of whites, getting injured as the walls collapse on them. In the process, though, Le Clézio seems to unmask his own prejudices as he describes Africans in the patronizing lingo invented and perfected by white liberals: “She has never cared for anyone as much as she cared for these people. They were so gentle, their eyes so luminous, their gestures so pure and elegant. When she walked through the different neighbourhoods to reach the wharf, children came up to her, not shy, and caressed her arms; women took her by the hand, spoke to her, in the gentle language which hummed like music” (p118)
The research is sloppy and it shows. There is no excuse for what passes for Pidgin English in the book. What Le Clézio calls Pidgin English does not exist in West Africa, it was clearly contrived: “Big black fellow box spose white man fight him, he cry too mus!” p40. Go figure. Le Clézio is at pains to showcase his knowledge of African gods, mythologies and history; unfortunately the result is error-prone. He places Benjamin Adekunle, the “Black Scorpion” on the Biafran side of the Nigerian Civil war (p193). Sigh. Don’t ask me how Le Clézio got to Biafra from 1948.
In Le Clézio’s Africa, everything is pristine, filled with a contrived innocence. It is truly fiction so he could be forgiven for liberal applications of poetic license. Africa is storm buckets of thunder and rain and mud and more thunder. Everything is dark. Africans are subhuman and primitive. And sweetly angelic in a childlike way. The book is populated by black people with distended exaggerated features. The title of the book should be The Great White Hope Comes to Save Africa Again. Joseph Conrad, meet Le Clézio. This is history liberally distorted, romanticised to fit a liberal orthodoxy. How can a book written in the nineties be so bigoted? The real question is this: Why do many Western writers who write about Africa persist in seeing us as hapless sub-humans?