The African

The African

by J. M. G. Le Clezio

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The African is a short autobiographical account of a pivotal moment in Nobel-Prize-winning author J. M. G. Le Clézio's childhood. In 1948, young Le Clézio, with his mother and brother, left behind a still-devastated Europe to join his father, a military doctor in Nigeria, from whom he'd been separated by the war. In Le Clézio's


The African is a short autobiographical account of a pivotal moment in Nobel-Prize-winning author J. M. G. Le Clézio's childhood. In 1948, young Le Clézio, with his mother and brother, left behind a still-devastated Europe to join his father, a military doctor in Nigeria, from whom he'd been separated by the war. In Le Clézio's characteristically intimate, poetic voice, the narrative relates both the dazzled enthusiasm the child feels at discovering newfound freedom in the African savannah and his torment at discovering the rigid authoritarian nature of his father. The power and beauty of the book reside in the fact that both discoveries occur simultaneously.

While primarily a memoir of the author's boyhood, The African is also Le Clézio's attempt to pay a belated homage to the man he met for the first time in Africa at age eight and was never quite able to love or accept. His reflections on the nature of his relationship to his father become a chapeau bas to the adventurous military doctor who devoted his entire life to others. Though the author palpably renders the child's disappointment at discovering the nature of his estranged father, he communicates deep admiration for the man who tirelessly trekked through dangerous regions in an attempt to heal remote village populations.

The major preoccupations of Le Clézio's life and work can be traced back to these early years in Africa. The question of colonialism, so central to the author, was a primary source of contention for his father: "Twenty-two years in Africa had inspired him with a deep hatred of all forms of colonialism." Le Clézio suggests that however estranged we may be from our parents, however foreign they may appear, they still leave an indelible mark on us. His father's anti-colonialism becomes "The African's" legacy to his son who would later become a world-famous champion of endangered peoples and cultures.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Even in translation, Nobel Prize in Literature winner Le Clezio's sensual language seduces the reader in this emotive memoir of his childhood spent in Ogoja, a remote village in Nigeria in the late 1940s. The first half recounts his disorienting and formative experiences as a young boy in an unfamiliar country with a stark, violent landscape. Le Clezio describes learning about the world through the "immodesty" of the human body, predating language, with axiomatic declarations such as "freedom in Ogoja was the supremacy of the body." In the second half, Le Clezio begins a hesitant, almost incurious seeking out of his mysterious, authoritative father, whom he did not meet until he was eight years old. The man, referred to simply as "my father," was an ambitious, unconventional doctor who traveled extensively throughout South America and eventually brought the family to colonial Africa. Le Clezio's father's pursuit of a career "practicing medicine in emergency situations, with no equipment, no medicine" in remote areas, and his seeming ambivalence toward any sort of ‘normal' life, even when returning to France after leaving Africa makes for a fascinating portrait. However, readers are only given the briefest of glimpses. The memoir does not feel particularly urgent or meditative, but it is ephemeral and filled with paradoxes, as childhood memories, and an adult's attempt to recapture them, often are. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Le Clezio, recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, recalls the emotive and evocative African experience of his youth. Here, he shapes the figure of a man he hardly knew or understood and met for the first time in Nigeria when he was eight years old. His father, a British citizen of Mauritius, studied tropical medicine in England and practiced in Guyana and Africa. After traveling across Africa with his Leica camera, his father settled in northern Nigeria. Walking from one village to the next, he tended the sick, the diseased, and the dying. After 22 years, he returned home, where Le Clezio's memories are of a silent, taciturn, authoritative, and sometimes violent man. In the process of writing this reminiscence and selecting some of his father's photos to accompany the text, Le Clezio comes to cherish a life subsumed by Africa. None of the photos include his father, and the book never mentions the man's name. VERDICT This is a fluid translation from the French version published in 2004 and a fine introduction to a prolific and relatively unrecognized writer. Recommended.—Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ. Lib., Montreal
Kirkus Reviews
A slim yet resonant autobiographical entry from the Nobel laureate's early years in West Africa. Le Clézio's (Desert, 2009, etc.) memoir of his African youth is thin in length yet rich in detail as he reconciles his experience being spontaneously relocated at 8 with his mother and brother from World War II–era Nice, France, to remote Nigeria. As the only whites in a villages of natives, he describes family life crammed into a rustic homestead with paneless windows and mosquito netting--the best the French government could provide to his father, a military doctor. Even without schooling or sports, the author's cultural enlightenment becomes an explosion of sensations, from the sun-induced bouts of prickly heat to the naked culture's immodest "supremacy of the body." Le Clézio writes of liberating his pent-up frustration from being raised fatherless in dreary, wartime Europe on the African savannah, yet his father, the man he'd reunited with in 1948, emerges as the memoir's beating heart. Restless after medical school, he'd fled Europe for a two-year medical post in Guyana and two decades in West Africa. The author paints his father as pessimistic, lonely, overly authoritative and staunchly repulsed by colonial power, yet happily married. Sadly defeated by time and circumstance, he'd become a stranger and, once relocated back to France, "an old man out of his element, exiled from his life and his passion for medicine, a survivor." Only in his lyrically articulated hindsight does the author truly appreciate his father's good work and a unique, memorable childhood. A vivid depiction of a splintered childhood and the lovely wholeness procured from it.

Product Details

Godine, David R. Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.70(d)

Meet the Author

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in 1940 in Nice, France. His first novel, Le Procès-Verbal (The Interrogation), won the Prix Renaudot in 1963 and established his reputation as one of France's preeminent writers. He has published more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Prospector (Godine, 1993) and Desert (Godine, 2009). He and his wife currently divide their time between Nice, New Mexico, and the island of Mauritius.

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