Monthly Archives: January 2009

Onitsha– J.M.G. Le Clezio



The announcement of this 2008 Nobel prize winner for literature could be said to be a bit of a surprise. But a look at the length and breadth of Le Clezio’s oeuvre, and one can see he has been true to his art. He can NOT be accused of seeking commercial success from his somewhat bizarre earlier structures to his post-colonial themes in his later works.

His work at the time of my introduction to this writer in his 1991 novel, Onitsha  had not been widely translated into English. That situation is due to change soon. Nobel prizes tend to do that…

Its takes the reader on a voyage of discovery for the youth, Fintan, a young European boy who travels from Bordeaux to the port of Marseilles to sail along the coast of Africa to the mouth of the Niger  to Onitsha in colonial Nigeria with his Italian mother (nicknamed Maou) in the year 1948.

Lots of layers to the strikingly sonorous prose and a wonderful (to my ears) music to the language of Onitsha’s places and inhabitants. Le Clezio weaves many layers into this seemingly simple narrative. Beneath the narrative’s surface level, the motifs/ and Symbols- primal elemental images (Fire- the Sun, Water-the Niger River, the sea, the rain/ Air-thunder/lightning, Earth – the red mud (blood) resonate the questing themes/sojourns as well as the mythic back-story of the  of the journey of Meroe, the Black Queen, which further refracts Geofrey’s obsession with Onitsha’s pre-history. Early in the the Onitsha section and again, later, the little city of mud god’s that Fintan and Bony had made were dissolved in the rain, foreshadowing and echoing the dissolution and destruction of the Colonial ideal. There be monsters lurking in these depths…

It has been refered to as the Heart of Darkness in reverse. There are undoubted parallels, but that’s a vast oversimplification. I can see a lot of possiblity for further excavations in Onitsha….

Alison Anderson does a wonderful job in capturing Le Clezio’s fluid prose .  A Very evocative, profound, and powerful story. Left me thirsting for more Le Clezio…



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