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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Belly of the Atlantic

Fatou Diome

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To purchase The Belly of the Atlantic

Title: The Belly of the Atlantic
Author: Fatou Diome
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 183 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Belly of the Atlantic - US
The Belly of the Atlantic - UK
The Belly of the Atlantic - Canada
Le Ventre de l'Atlantique - Canada
Le Ventre de l'Atlantique - France
Der Bauch des Ozeans - Deutschland
  • French title: Le Ventre de l'Atlantique
  • Translated by Lulu Norman and Ros Schwartz

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective picture of the pull of two very different worlds

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 30/9/2006 Rachel Hore
The Independent . 6/10/2006 Gerry Feehily
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 25/11/2004 Frank Wittmann
Die Welt . 20/11/2004 Tom Stöver

  From the Reviews:
  • "This eloquent and impassioned novel examines the dreams and tribulations of exile." - Rachel Hore, The Guardian

  • "The Belly of the Atlantic isn't only immigrant despair. () Diome takes up African issues such as the pillage of the continent at the hands of the World Bank and other institutions, but she is more angry about the way that backward Islamic patriarchy controls mores and hampers personal development. African fertility is a problem, too. () This didactic novel is entertaining, though, because her writing has undeniable power and wit, well served by the translators Roz Schwartz and Lulu Norman." - Gerry Feehily, The Independent

  • "Wie Europa sich wirklich anfühlt für jemanden, der wie Abfall durch seine Straßen gewirbelt wird, wie Armut, wie Afrika sich wirklich anfühlt, wie das den Fundamentalismus zum Blühen bringt, was es braucht, um in Europa überleben zu können, wie wehrlos Aufklärung ist inmitten des Elends - Fatou Diome hat es aufgeschrieben. In einem halbpoetischen, halbdokumentarischen Roman." - Tom Stöver, Die Welt

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:

       Salie, the narrator of The Belly of the Atlantic, is a woman from the island of Niodior, Senegal, who now lives in France (exactly like the author). Back home her younger brother, Madické, is a fanatic football (soccer) fan -- though unlike all the other French-obsessed locals his idol is the Italian star, Maldini -- and, like everyone else, he dreams of making it big abroad.
       Niodior is a sleepy backwater, self-sufficient in many ways -- a land of plenty, where the locals don't have to worry about getting enough fresh water or food -- but also forgotten and with few amenities. Illiteracy is still widespread, "the dispensary's almost bare; they rely on herbal infusions for curing malaria", and a TV is a big rarity. Salie doesn't want to crush her brother's dreams, but she knows that coming to France isn't the solution -- and understands how hard it is to convince him, especially when she seems to be doing well there. But she hopes to talk him out of his plans -- first to make it as a football star, then to pay a fortune to be smuggled in illegally -- and instead wants to set him up with a shop in Niodior.
       The book recounts the fates of various locals who have tried to make it abroad. There's the big man in town, the one with the TV, 'the man from Barbès', who recounts his exploits abroad and feeds the local's fantasies; the truth is, of course, that he had a miserable time in France, taken advantage of and earning a pittance. Then there's Moussa, the promising football player, who is scouted and brought over to France but can't adapt (and isn't good enough), and whose dreams and life come crashing down.
       Salie is torn between her two worlds. She escaped Niodior through education and then marriage to a white man (whom she soon divorced), but her sort of ambition -- sneaking into school until the teacher accepted her there, studying relentlessly -- is rare. And she was already an outcast of sorts, with better reasons to escape than most of those who are more tightly knit into the community.
        The Belly of the Atlantic effectively portrays the tug of home and abroad. France sounds like a land of golden and almost inevitable opportunity, but the starker reality is that it comes at a high personal cost. Niodior seems a place where almost nothing is possible, and yet there's great comfort in the sense of community and little true suffering. Even Salie is drawn back to it, even as she realises she does not really belong here either any longer.
       Diome is particularly good at the cultural differences and their consequences, from the locals' expectation that those who return from abroad bring gifts for all and share in their success (which, of course, some take advantage of), to the costs of polygamy and the insistence on having so many children. The book can seem overly didactic, its brief-lives stories covering the whole gamut of issues, but for the most part the stories and figures are compelling enough that it isn't that annoying.
       Not surprisingly, a teacher figures especially prominently, Monsieur Ndétare, who has been exiled to the island for his Marxist politics but tries to guide his pupils as best he can. He, too, suffered a great personal tragedy -- again the result of local custom and expectations, where marriages are still arranged and love is rarely taken into account.
       Diome points out the flaws in both France and Senegal, but her main concern is with the people of her home-country, both their false expectations regarding France and Europe as lands of easy opportunity as well as their domestic failures, from holding marabouts in too high esteem to the failures of the government. The critique is far-reaching, and at times the book does seem like an essay meant to list them all, but mostly Diome weaves it in well enough into her story, and even when she doesn't it's worth paying attention to, as when she notes:

Listening to the news, I realise that religious hypocrites are invading the country, opening institutes under cover of humanitarian aid and building Arab schools in remote parts of the countryside so they can spread their doctrine. But they're crafty, they keep out of sight; it's the people they control who do everything. Naturally, the state sees no harm in it and uses the excuse of progress to avoid resolving the problem. As with colonisation, by the time we wake up, it'll be too late, the damage will already be done. In exchange for a few benefits, communities with only scant knowledge of the Koran follow these obscure preachers like sheep. And anyway, why would our leaders want to attack those who come and do their job for them ?
       The writing can get overly elegiac, but Diome packs a lot in -- both story- and idea-wise -- and it is quite a page-turner. Salie's (Diome's ?) own story seems at times almost reluctantly brought into it all, and could certainly have been expanded on, but even as is The Belly of the Atlantic is a good work on African life in a rapidly changing world, and a colourful portrait of this particular corner of the continent.

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The Belly of the Atlantic: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Fatou Diome was born in Senegal in 1968, and has lived in France since 1994.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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