Book Review: The African by J.M.G. Le Clezio

If you go on the Nobel website, click on the winners, and look at “About the Nobel Prize in Literature ____ (insert year here),” you’ll find something called the bio-bibliography, which gives an account of the many books each laureate wrote and the themes. Often times the sections dedicated to individual books varies in length, and here lies the interesting part: the books with the longer paragraphs or parts are the books that helped get the authors the Nobel. Usually these are the books you would expect (ex. Le Clezio’s DESERT), but occasionally it is one that has flown under the radar, that has been passed off in the public eye as a minor work. This is exactly the case with Le Clezio’s THE AFRICAN, a novella length memoir that gets as much space as DESERT, which has been described as the writer’s masterpiece.

Le Clezio was virtually unknown in the English-speaking world when he won the Nobel; now, a few years down the line, he still does not get talked about much. Which means THE AFRICAN, which has been summed up as a minor work over here, is rarely if ever mentioned. This is a shame, as it’s quite the book.

The focus is on Le Clezio’s strict father, a doctor who spent most of his adult life working in a very rural area in Africa. After the war, the author, his brother, and his mother all went to live with him (and, in the boys’ case, to meet him). Le Clezio’s descriptions of the landscape, the plains, the termite mounds are as always poetic, and this section is filled with dreamy memories of him and his brother playing around, gritting their teeth at the strange man everyone calls their father.

The book then shifts in time, moving from memories to reconstruction based on the stories Le Clezio was told. How his father wound up in Africa when he could have settled in England. How he and his wife first traveled there. How the couple was separated during the war and how the father abandoned his post to make a mad journey across the Sahara to try to be reunited with his family.

The book is incredibly slim and can be finished easily in two hours. While not a real negative, at times the book does not go into satisfying detail about various anecdotes and recollections. But this is still a very heartfelt book. By the end the father has gone from a strict figure, the bane of rambunctious youngsters, to a complex, tragic figure torn from having a normal family life due to circumstances beyond his control.

This book never really took off in the English-speaking world, and as Le Clezio recedes into a forgotten figure, another example of the Nobel picking a nobody instead of some living legend like Kundera, it seems unlikely that it will ever get a resurgence. This is a shame, as THE AFRICAN unexpectedly confirms Le Clezio as a worthy winner.

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