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the Complete Review
the complete review - auto/biographical


The African

J.M.G. Le Clézio

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To purchase The African

Title: The African
Author: J.M.G. Le Clézio
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 106 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The African - US
The African - UK
The African - Canada
L'Africain - Canada
The African - India
L'Africain - France
L'africano - Italia
El africano - España
  • French title: L'Africain
  • Translated by C. Dickson
  • With numerous photographs

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Our Assessment:

B : nice sliver of a memoir

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Washington Post . 25/9/2013 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)his brief memoir provides a good entry point, honoring, as it does, Le Clézio’s father and mother and his own lost African childhood." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In a brief introductory section to The African author Le Clézio explains how he came to write this little book. In the opening sentence he states the obvious -- "Every human being is the product of a father and a mother" -- but, as he suggests in revealing how he once saw himself ("I'd made up a life story, a past for myself, so I could flee reality") and then how his understanding changed years later, "when my father came back to live with us in France upon his retirement", it can take a while to determine the exact nature of the parental role (and its nature) in shaping that product. The African is a memoir, of sorts, but it is also a study of the father, and how this father's unusual life and choices affected the 'product' Le Clézio became.
       Born in 1940, Le Clézio spent most of the war years in the south of France, with only a childish understanding of the difficult circumstances of those times, doted on by a forgiving mother and grandmother. His father -- originally from Mauritius, then a doctor first in what is now Guyana and then in western Africa -- was unknown to him during these years, and he first met him when the family was reunited in Nigeria when he was about eight. This new figure in his life: "had nothing in common with the men I had known in France", but rather seemed: "from another world".
       As Le Clézio comes to realize; "arriving in Africa meant entering the antechamber of the adult world" -- but it was still only the antechamber. In Africa they lived in Ogoja, where:

there were no Europeans, and, where to the child I was, all of humanity was made up solely of the Ibo and Yoruba people.
       Le Clézio's family apparently truly lived in hinterlands, and he reports:
When I read British "colonial" novels of those years, or the years just prior to our arrival in Nigeria -- for example Joyce Cary, the author of Mister Johnson -- they are completely unfamiliar to me. When I read William Boyd, who aslo spent part of his childhood in British West Africa, I can't relate to it either.
       As he explains:
The memory I have of those days could be likened to time spent aboard a boat between two worlds.
       These few years of idyllic freedom -- or so he remembers them ("Memories can probably be misleading", he admits) -- stand in contrast to the years before and after, and so Africa too comes to represent that freedom. Yet as he comes to consider his father's life, he realizes that it's more complicated than that. Ultimately, he sees, it is his father that is 'the African', as it was his father that had made the most radical decision as to how to lead his life:
     He had chosen something else altogether. Out of pride probably, to flee the mediocrity of British society, out of a desire for adventure too. And there was a price to pay for that something else. It plunged you into a different world, swept you away to another life. It condemned you to exile when war broke out, caused you to lose your wife and children, and in a certain way, inevitably made a stranger out of you.
       The African isn't a reckoning with his father, but an attempt to gain some understanding both of the man's life, and the effect it had on Le Clézio's own. So, also, at one point Le Clézio: "tried to imagine what his life (and therefore mine) would have been" if his father had made different choices.
       These are quite fascinating lives, though what Le Clézio offers are largely only glimpses and general outlines; there's little precise detail here, as he focuses on more general impressions and memories (understandable, given that much of the focus is on that only hazily remembered time of childhood). Still, it makes for an appealing little memoir, of distant fathers and their sons -- a sliver, only, of these lives, but thoughtfully presented.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 June 2013

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The African: Reviews: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio: Other books by J.M.G. Le Clézio under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was born in 1940. He was awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature.

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© 2013 the complete review

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