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Onitsha by J. M. G. Le Clezio

Onitsha (1991)

by J. M. G. Le Clezio

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
The wonderful review by rebeccanyc below says everything I would say, better than I could.
I thank the Nobel committee for bringing Le Clezio to my attention. ( )
  almigwin | Jan 14, 2015 |
The more I thought about what I should say about this book in my review, the more I realized how complex the novel really is and how much is left unsaid. It starts as the partially autobiographical story of Fintan, a boy who seems to be about 11 or 12 years old, traveling with his Italian mother (whom he calls Maou) by ship from the Atlantic coast of France to Onitsha on the Niger River in Nigeria. It is 1948, the war is over, and Fintan's English father, Geoffroy, whom he has never met, has sent for Maou and Fintan to join him in Onitsha.

The first part of the novel depicts the voyage, which the reader sees through both Fintan's and Maou's eyes, as they enter a foreign world and feel the impact of both the climate and the racist/colonial structure of the society. None of this is didactic; it emerges from the perceptions and actions of the characters. The later parts of the novel take place in and around Onitsha, except for the very end when the family leaves Africa.

In Onitsha, once again, each member of the family reacts to the world in which they find themselves -- Maou and Fintan mostly among the Africans, Geoffroy largely among the colonial English, those engaged in commerce, as he is, and those representing the government. But Geoffroy has another interest, one which drew him to Africa in the first place. He is convinced that the last black queen of Meroë, part of ancient Egypt, led her people up the Nile and across the mountains to found another kingdom on the banks of the Niger, perhaps at a mystical site known as Aro Chuku. (I did a lot of Googling at this point.) His imaginings of this journey, shown in another typeface in my edition, are interspersed with the rest of the novel, and progress as the novel progresses. Geoffroy also comes to think of a mysterious young woman, Ayo, who is unable to speak or hear and whose past is uncertain, as a reincarnation of the long ago black queen.

Meanwhile, Maou irritates the colonial powers by showing her disgust with how they treat the Africans, including a group of prisoners hired to dig a swimming pool while still chained together who carry on their work in sight of a dinner party at the district officer's home. Fintan explores the natural world with a slight older friend, Bony, quickly shedding his shoes and socks to run barefoot over the savannah and rocks; he also is becoming aware of sexuality. A mysterious European, Sabine Rodes, who has an "adopted" African son as his servant, as well as some association with the equally mysterious Ayo, also figures in the story.

Le Clezio's writing is beautiful, and he vividly depicts the very different environment the mixed European family finds itself in, and how they react to it.

"It was the beginning of the rainy season. The big river was the color of lead beneath the clouds, the wind flattened the treetops with violence. Maou no longer left the house in the afternoon. She stayed on the veranda, listening to the rising storms, far off towards the source of the Omerun. Heat crackled the red earth before the rain. The air danced above the tin roofs. From where she sat she could see the river, the islands. She had lost all desire to write, or even to read. She needed only to look, to listen, as if time were of no more importance." pp. 119-120

Beyond the tale of a boy experiencing a new world, and the picture of colonialist racism in action, and the dream-like story of an historic or mythical migration, and the vivid depiction of a time and a place, this book also seems to be about voyages of various kinds, isolation of various kinds, and the urge to write. Geoffroy travels from England to Italy and then to Africa, Maou with her mother and aunt and Fintan from Italy to France and with only Fintan to Africa, the black queen of Meroë from the Nile to the Niger, and finally the family back to England and France. All are alone in a way, finding their place in Africa on their own, Maou and Geoffroy coming from different parts of Europe and leaving their own families behind. And each writes something at some point in the story: Maou letters to Geoffroy, Fintan a story of a girl who takes "a long voyage" to Africa, and Geoffroy his notes about the epic journey of the queen of Meroë. Left unsaid, but looming in the background, are the devastation World War II brought to the Europe they have left and the impending anti-colonial upheavals in the Africa they leave at the end. As the mysterious Sabine Rodes says to Maou:

"Have a good look about you! The days are numbered for all of us, all of us! For good people and bad, for honorable people and for those like me! The empire is finished, signorina, it's crumbling on every side, turning to dust: the great ship of empire is sinking, honorably! You speak of charity, don't you, and your husband lives in his dream world, and meanwhile everything is crumbling around you! 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.", p. 143

(Incidentally, Rodes has already seen a real ship go under in the river, a wreck that figures prominently in the novel.)

At the very end of the book, a now-adult Fintan reflects on how his year in Africa infused his whole life, leaving him with feelings that set him apart from others, and how his experiences there connect him with the then-ongoing war in Biafra.

This is a book that I will continue thinking about for a long time.
9 vote rebeccanyc | Sep 20, 2013 |
It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I really connected this novel with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun which was based on the Biafran War in the 1960ies where the eastern part of Nigeria, primarily represented by the Igbo people, were hounded into succession and an attempt to found their own state. Or that I began to wonder why so much of the literary output of Nigeria (besided Adichie, Chinua Achebe in the previous generation and Chris Abani more recently)—at least that which has got attention in the West—comes from this area of the country.LeClezio’s novel spans the time frame of Achebe and of Adichie, with the novel beginning in 1948 when its main character, Fintan, first travels to Africa and 1969 when Fintan travels to France where his father is dying and from there, one speculates—since he resigned his teaching job—to Nigeria.Fintan is 12 when he travels with his mother on the Holland Africa steamer from France to Nigeria. Mother and son are unusually close and both write on the ship—the mother (Maou, short for Maria Louisa), bits of evocative poetry and Fintan, a chronicle called “A Long Voyage”. On the ship with them is the new British DO (District Officer) at Onitsha—where they are headed—giving the reader a preview of the racial and cultural disconnect they’ll encounter at their destination.In addition, we have the strange circumstances of their own voyage. In the 30ies Maou had married Geoffroy, an Englishman, in her home country, Italy. Shortly after their marriage he goes off, presumably to Africa, promising to send for her which he does only after his child is 12 years old!Fintan resents the father he’s never met and doesn’t like him in person and we’re at first on his side as his father seems to be as insensitive as the other British functionaries in the local colonial government—including the DO met on the ship. Gradually, though, as Fintan toughens up his feet and runs with a local boy, learning the ways of the forest and the river, we learn of Geoffroy’s passion for the ancient myths and legends of the people who first settled on an island in the Niger. His interest borders on obsession, is deemed inappropriate by local whites. When Maou speaks up about British mistreatment of the people at the British club, she’s ostracized and the powers that be decide they have to go.The point of view shifts almost imperceptibly between Maou and Fintan. LeClezio excels in characterizing the place, through descriptions of the sights and sounds of the forest and the river and the love of the land and the people that grows in mother and son. The sections that represent Geoffroy’s thoughts are printed in a different font to indicate a shift; at first they seem irrelevant to the contemporary world, though gradually people and events from the past seem to merge with those in the present. Readers hardly experience Geoffroy except through his research into the mists of history, though his sections communicate his intense emotional involvement with that past. Gradually, though, as Fintan comes to acknowledge and respect his father's understanding of the past, we see the small family of three standing implacably against the colonial establishment in what is a powerful, because understated, indictment of colonialism. ( )
  fourbears | Apr 24, 2010 |
This book remind me a lot of bend in the river, a young boy goes to africa with his mother right after ww2, they go to be with his father, and her husband. the boy doesn't know his father, the father doesn't know the boy or his wife. She doesn't really know him, the war separted them. they are strangers in a strange world that is changing. the mother brings changes to her husband the boy becomes part of the old africa and watches its enter a new world. a study in alliancation ( )
  michaelbartley | Oct 8, 2009 |
The 2008 Nobel Prize winner for literature was a complete surprise. I had never heard the name or any of his novels. I checked with a colleague from France, and she had heard of him but had read only one of his novels. Onitsha appears to be the only work translated into English.

The story tells of Maou and her son Fintan who travel to Nigeria to meet up with Geoffrey, Maou’s husband and Fintan’s father. They arrive as the British colonial system is collapsing – Nigeria is about to be plunged into civil war.

This marvelous novel has a couple of peculiar features which make it unique and absorbing. First, it is almost entirely told through description. The author limits dialogue to only a few lines at a time, and only on rare occasions. The description, on the other hand, is so rich it defies its own description. For example, when Fintan first sets foot in the village of Onitsha, he surveys the scene from the veranda of the family home. “At sunset the sky darkened to the west, towards Asaba, above Brokkedon Island. From the height of the terrace Fintan could survey the entire breadth of the river, could see places where the tributaries – Anambara, Omerun – joined the river, and the large flat island of Jersey, covered with reeds and trees. Downstream the river inscribed a slow curving line to the south, as vast as an arm of the sea, with the hesitant traces of small islands, like rafts adrift. The storm swirled. There were bloodied streaks in the sky, gaps in the clouds. Then very rapidly, the black cloud went back up the river, chasing before it the flying ibises still lit by the sun” (47).

Page after page the reader rides along the river in a pirogue, or walks through a grassy field, or struggles through jungle growth.

The other peculiarity involves Geoffrey’s obsession with a legend of a young queen of Meroë, who led her people to the interior of the continent to find a new land to begin their civilization anew. This portion of the story has been set into a slightly different font, and the legend becomes entangled with Geoffrey’s dreams.

The impassioned Maou causes trouble among the colonial community, and Geoffrey is forced to take his family back to Europe. They try and erase the memory of Onitsha, its people, myths, and the legend of Meroë, the last descendent of the Pharaohs. But too much of Africa and its legends has penetrated the family. It will remain with them forever.

LeClézio’s novel intertwines, colonialism, legends, and the destructive force of white invaders. I surely hope more of his work will find its way into English translations. I only hope a more professional publisher will pick up the task. This was a poorly printed, poorly bound book by The University of Nebraska Press. Five stars

--Jim, 12/24/08 ( )
  rmckeown | Dec 24, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
J. M. G. Le Clezioprimary authorall editionscalculated
Anderson, AlisonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A novel on white colonialism in Africa through the eyes of Fintan, a 12-year-old boy who joins his parents in Nigeria. He meets an African boy his age and participates in the world of the Africans, contrasting it with the world of the whites.

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