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the complete review - fiction
Beyond the Door of No Return
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- French title: La porte du voyage sans retour
- Translated by Sam Taylor
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B+ : well-written and a satisfying read
See our review for fuller assessment.
|Pierre de Gasquet
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|World Lit. Today
From the Reviews:
- "David Diop tire un magnifique roman d’amour, d’initiation et de transmission. Livre d’aventures et fable philosophique, aux descriptions luxuriantes, imprégné d’odeurs et de saveurs. Éloge subtil de la richesse du français du XVIIIe siècle qui modèle son style, et du wolof dont la force d’évocation irrigue un imaginaire flamboyant. (...) Une grande beauté se dégage du rythme des phrases de David Diop, emplies de scènes spectrales." - Jean-Claude Raspiengeas, La Croix
- "Au fil du récit, cette fresque épique sur la rencontre entre une esclave rebelle et un jeune botaniste en avance sur son temps (...), prend des accents de poème symphonique. On y retrouve l'atmosphère lyrique des grands récits de voyage, sans les ambiguïtés du mythe colonial. (...) Une ode subtile à la négritude et au pays de Léopold Senghor." - Pierre de Gasquet, Les Echos
- "Intricately layered, enfolding stories within stories, Beyond the Door of No Return is many things at once: mystery, autobiography, epistolary, romance, adventure, confession. Through an act of remembrance, Diop seeks to build a repository of lives and histories lost to the slave trade." - Sana Goyal, Financial Times
- "This is a novel with enough frame narratives to make the ghost of Joseph Conrad come and listen; the story told by Adanson is itself surrounded by other people, other considerations. Diop takes a risk in devoting the long first section to Adanson’s daughter Aglaé, her complicated middle life, and her feelings about a father more interested in compiling his Famille des plantes than in his own young family. Though this is deeply appealing biographical terrain, it’s not clear where the central path of the novel will open up. By the end we can return with pleasure to this beginning, meeting Aglaé in her greenhouse, understanding how far this is a book about inheritances that come late or in roundabout ways and are sometimes not wanted at all." - Alexandra Harris, The Guardian
- "Diop expands on Adanson’s life, infusing it with a story of heartbreak to explain Adanson’s later obsessive work creating an exhaustive record of fauna and flora, to the detriment of his family life. (...) Diop’s portrayal of Adanson navigating the effects and systems of slavery is sharp and astute. (...) In less skilled hands, the novel’s structure would not work. Aglaé, whose chapters bookend Adanson’s letter, would feel underdeveloped, and the story of Adanson and his family would feel underbaked. But the opposite happens here." - Clémence Michallon, The New York Times Book Review
- "A specialist in 18th-century literature, Diop recalls the fiction of the period with his focus on nature, exploration and epistolary format. Reflecting Senegal’s oral tradition, Adanson recounts what he hears from several characters, while our reading is filtered through Aglaé. There’s also a neat echo of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. A compelling critique of colonial violence and the dehumanisation of Black people, this book illustrates how inhabiting another language promotes compassion." - Lucy Popescu, The Observer
- "Der Roman ist ein sonderbarer Hybrid. Er mischt Kritik am Kolonialismus und Rassismus der Europäer mit Fragmenten eines ausgeweideten naturkundlichen Reiseberichts und macht daraus eine tropische Abenteuergeschichte, die sich die Fantasien der Weißen über die dunklen Praktiken auf dem schwarzen Kontinent zunutze macht. Die historischen Leiden der versklavten Afrikaner werden mit einer exotisch aromatisierten schwarz-weißen Lovestory verquickt, die gefährlich nahe an den Kitschrändern der Kolportage entlangschrammt. Diesen narrativen Cocktail rundweg bekömmlich zu nennen, wäre gelogen." - Sigrid Löffler, Süddeutsche Zeitung
- "David Diop, a professor of eighteenth-century literature, tells a complex tale rooted in historical research and filled with curiosities. Its measured, ironic tones -- well captured by Sam Taylor’s translation -- provide some distance from the harshness of the subject matter, as does the elaborate framing, reminiscent of early novels such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe." - Norma Clarke, Times Literary Supplement
- "Michel may envision himself a white savior by his disdain for slavery, but it’s made abundantly clear his craft only serves to perpetuate a misanthropic system. Diop is also adept at weaving myth into realistic fiction. (...) The author’s prose -- and, by extension, Sam Taylor’s excellent translation -- mixes vivid metaphor with direct action. Violence is conveyed as it should be: jarring, uncomfortable, and permeant. It lingers like a stench that’s only subdued by Diop’s magical descriptions of passion and longing." - Daniel Bokemper, World Literature Today
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:
Beyond the Door of No Return is set in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and the central character, Michel Adanson, is a real-life historical figure, a naturalist who lived 1727 to 1806.
The novel begins with his death, with his daughter Aglaé watching over him; she too is a real-life figure.
(Yes, the name 'Aglaé' is not Diop's invention; that is her actual name; "You are named after Aphrodite's messenger, the youngest of the Three Charites, radiant with beauty", Adanson explains.)
Adanson married in 1770, but was entirely obsessed with completing a 'universal encyclopedia' and devoted practically all his remaining time to it.
His wife left him for another man, taking Aglaé with her, and so the girl only had limited contact with her father.
On his deathbed, Adanson hopes: "desperately that Aglaé would discover his notebooks", and his dying word, repeated: "over and over, until the end" is: 'Maram'.
The notebooks are rather well-hidden, but she does discover them -- and realizes:
Perhaps the discovery of these handwritten pages was, for her, the discovery of a hidden, private Michel Adanson, a man she would otherwise never have known.
The bulk of the novel then consists of Adanson's letter to his daughter and his account of his adventures when he was in his early twenties and ventured to Senegal, whereby:
My story is not the one you were able to read in my published accounts of the voyage: it is, rather, the story of my youth, my first regrets and my last hopes.
An English translation of Adanson's A Voyage to Senegal was already published in 1759; the invented story Diop presents is a sort of supplement to that chronicle -- adopting also some of the tone of Adanson's narrative, as well as some of the descriptive details.
While conducting his research, Adanson meets a village-chief, Baba Seck, who tells him the story of a revenant -- someone who: "succeeded in returning from an impossible land. And if that place is not death, it is at least adjacent to hell".
It is his niece, Maram, who he says was abducted three years earlier -- and now, just a month ago, someone had come to the village claiming to be a messenger from Maram, reporting that she was still alive.
Baba Seck was not entirely truthful: Maram did disappear several years earlier, but it was he that had sold her to a white man, to rid himself of an inconvenience that would have ruined his comfortable little life.
Adanson and Maram's paths then cross on Adanson's continuing journey, and he learns her story and what she has been through these past few years -- putting him also in a difficult position because he realizes who the white man that had bought her was and learns that one of the men accompanying him had even been involved in her original kidnapping.
And, of course, he falls for her.
We know, of course, that Maram and Adanson would not go on to live happily ever after.
The powers that be -- notably the director of the Senegal Concession -- have other ideas; unsurprisingly, the end to Maram and Adanson's relationship is of the kind that still haunts Adanson over half a century later .....
After a somewhat roundabout buildup to Adanson's African adventures -- we learn a bit more about Aglaé than serves any useful purpose in the story -- Beyond the Door of No Return is a well-written adventure-romance in an unusual setting.
Diop, a specialist in eighteenth century French literature, presents his novel very much in classic style; he writes well, making for a consistently enjoyable read.
In a relatively small space, he also covers the conditions of the times well, with Adanson's travels exposing him to the varieties of lives at the time, from the French colonialists to various local groupings.
The French presence in Senegal, and the consequences for the local people, are mainly presented by example, though occasionally Adanson reflects on (or is led to consider) them, as when he first meets Maram:
Very happy to present myself as an exceptional man, I replied that I had nothing to do with the people at the Senegal Concession and that any association I might have with them was purely a matter of form.
I was in Senegal only to observe its fauna and flora.
Later, considering the possibility of sharing his life with her, he wonders whether it would be possible:
"But surely you know," she retorted, "that the Senegal Concession will seek to profit from your observations ?
Either you are naïve or you are a hypocrite."
Even though her beauty and her ideas of the world, inseparable from her as an individual, had been the first sources of my love for her, my prejudices would have perhaps led me to try to "whiten" her.
And if Maram, out of love for me, had agreed to become a white Black woman, so to speak, I am not certain that I would have continued to love her.
She would have become a shadow of herself, a simulacrum.
Diop tries his best to square the circle of the real historical person and the fictional version he features in the novel, with the acknowledgement that Adanson had: "published a pamphlet for the Bureau of Colonies extolling the advantages of the slave trade for the Senegal Concession in Gorée" suggesting that there was perhaps not that much personal growth or enlightened thinking to him after all.
Diop presents him as regressing -- "I gradually abandoned my principles" -- and expressing some shame and regret about that, but in focusing on Adanson's few years spent in Africa in his younger days Diop struggles some to capture the full picture of the character.
One can see what attracted Diop to this particular real-life figure, and he does present at least the basics of the arc of Adanson's life, down to the obsession with his universal work later in his life, but the alternate-history of those African years doesn't fully tally with the real life-story.
A smooth, colorful read, offering drama, romance, and convincing glimpses of both the France and the Senegal of those times, Beyond the Door of No Return is a very traditional-feeling novel that is a satisfying and enjoyable read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 12 September 2023
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Beyond the Door of No Return:
Other books by David Diop under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
French-Senegalese author David Diop was born in 1966.
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© 2023 the complete review
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