Onitsha by JMG LeClezio (translated by Alison Anderson)
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.