Saturday, January 31, 2009

Onitsha by J.M.G. Le Clezio

Onitsha is J.M.G. LeClezio's Nobel Prize-winning book. The book follows Fintan, a young boy who travels to Africa, and specifically, the town of Onitsha, with his mother in 1948 to join his father who works there for United Africa, a trading conglomerate. Fintan does not know his father, Geoffroy, as he had been separated from Fintan and Maou, his mother, during the war. Now that the war is over, they are following Geoffroy to Africa to reunite as a family. The book follows Fintan's relationship with Geoffroy and Maou as well as his perceptions of Africa.
His first perception of Africa is space. Everything is bigger there than in his native Italy, more sun, the sky spreads forever, the rain is fierce. He sheds his protected persona as a little boy and learns to explore and fend for himself as he grows up. The reader sees the people of the area through Fintan's eyes. Bony is another boy who befriends Fintan at first, then turns against him as the colonial establishment starts to crumble and the natives are treated even more shabbily by those who control the area. He learns about sex from Oya, a beautiful, mysterious native woman. There is an English gentleman, Sabine Rodes, who seems to love the country but is considered an outsider by the establishment. He teaches Fintan much of the history and customs of the native people.
The establishment is a group of Englishmen set up in a typical Colonial situation of businessmen and governmental representatives. Gerald Simpson is the leader and he expects everything to be ordered by rank. He considers the natives as lesser beings, and his expectation of a swimming pool dug by black convicts fuels much of the conflict shown between the natives and those in the local government. The other English have carved out their own fiefdoms. They gather in the local club and attempt to set up a mirror of the England they have known. Contact with the natives is rare, except for expectations of service. The native people are treated with condescension at best and more often, with total contempt.
Over time, Fintan grows to disapprove of all the other English. His sympathies lie with the native population, who are treated with disdain and routinely humiliated and exploited. His parents also fall out of favor. Geoffroy has an obsession with local history and the legends and religion that fuel it. Maou quickly becomes shunned, as she shows her contempt for the way the other colonials treat the native population. Geoffroy is considered weak since he does not control Maou and her display of emotions. This disfavor finally results in Geoffroy losing his job and the family leaving Onitsha.
Readers of this book will learn a lot about Africa. It is set in the area that later becomes Biafra. The food, customs, religion and people are portrayed in such a way that the reader is transported there, and the descriptions of the area leave one with a feel for what draws people to the area. The language is haunting and dreamlike. The contrast between the language and the harsh events that are explored sets a stark contrast that outlines the brutality of colonialism. This book is recommended for all readers.

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