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J. M. G. Le Clézio: Onitsha (Onitsha)

Onitsha is a town in Nigeria, of primarily Igbo stock. At the start of this novel, Fintan, a twelve-year old boy and his mother Maou (his pronunciation of her name Maria Luisa) are setting out from France to join Fintan’s father/Maou’s husband, Geoffroy (sic) Allen who is working for the United Africa Company in Onitsha. Fintan has not seen his father for many years. Maou is of Italian descent – her mother and aunt with whom she lives are both Italian – but they fled Italy during the War (World War II) and settled in Nice. Maou met Geoffroy in Italy before the war, fell in love with him and married him. The only problem has been is that he has found it difficult to make a career and went to Africa, leaving her, pregnant, with her mother and aunt. He has only briefly seen his son since then.

The voyage out to Africa is relatively uneventful. They meet a Mr. Simpson, to whom they both take a dislike and who turns out to be the new District Officer in Onitsha. More importantly, they both gradually become enchanted with the Africa they can see from the ship. For both mother and son, Africa will turn out to be an attraction but in different ways. Maou does not fit in with the stuffy old-fashioned ways of the British colony. For example, she complains when she sees, at an official reception, prisoners digging a swimming pool for the district officer (Simpson) in the hot sun, without any rest, food or drink. Geoffroy does not take her to a reception again. When she goes into the club (a strictly male preserve) and then, worse still, plays the piano, she is really rejected by the local society. However, she does find warmth among the local women, whom she befriends.

Fintan has a different take. He befriends both a local boy and an Englishman who has gone native called Sabine Rodes. They show him sides of Africa that Mr. Simpson and his friends don’t see, from visiting a wrecked ship to learning about animism and the protection of animals and plants. Fintan, often to his father’s annoyance, travels with both of them to areas where the real Africa is – the Africa of myth, religion and legend – and is affected by this for the rest of his life.

Geoffroy, too, has his African agenda. His real reason for being in Africa is to go to Meroë and, in particular, to find out what happened to its people after their final defeat. According to a legend recounted by Le Clézio, the city was threatened by enemies but, under their queen, managed to slip away by boat and travelled to a land that the queen had seen in a dream. Geoffroy is convinced that there is some connection between these people and some of the inhabitants of the Onitsha area. He meets two – Okawho and Oya – who work for Sabine Rodes and who will have an effect on all three of the Allen family. Geoffroy travels with Okawho to a place where the people might have settled but which is now abandoned.

Ultimately it does not work out. Geoffroy was never very successful and his wife’s behaviour only makes matters worse. The British clan together and Geoffroy is squeezed out. They do return to Europe but all three have been very much affected by their African experiences, though Fintan is concerned that his sister, Marima, conceived in Africa but born in Europe, should also feel African. It is not the first novel about Europeans affected by their African experiences but it certainly is a very effective one and superbly written by Le Clézio.

Publishing history

First published in 1991 by Gallimard
First English translation in 1997 by University of Nebraska Press
Translated by Alison Anderson