In the heart of darkness


Though it uses European cultural referents, Onitsha is an evocative and realistic depiction of imperialism in West Africa.

Onitsha, J.M.G. Le Clézio, Rupa, p.206, Rs. 295.

J.M.G. Le Clézio’s Onitsha, like Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, is about colonial black Africa judged by an outsider, yet a sincerely evocative and realistic depiction of African history. Though, like Mister Johnson, it uses the cultural referents from Europe, the novel nevertheless transcends the initial exotic and apprehensive view of Africa and moves into a horrifying and realistic account of intolerance and brutality, of racism and colonialism that lies at the heart of a complex story of imperialism in West Africa. Written almost 30 years after the triumph of Nigerian struggle for independence, the novel is a sincere and honest scrutiny of the culture of Africa and the brutality of colonial rule.

Written in 1991, and now reprinted by Rupa, the novel is a narrative of the responses of young Fintan who travels to Onitsha, a small commercial town on the eastern bank of River Niger, accompanied by his mother, Maou, hoping to find his English father, Geoffrey, whom he has never met. The journey that begins in France starts with some hesitation and foreboding as all journeys would when the destination is far and formidable. The technique immediately co-opts the reader into empathising with the protagonist and sets him off on his own exploration of Africa as an “exotic” land, distant from all familiar landscapes that he has ever visited. This evokes the politics of “difference”, enabling Fintan to undertake a journey of initiation that will lead to the Conradian experience of “horror” at the fate of the African race and yet suggesting the commonality of its human dimensions.

The setting of the novel is in the late 1940s when the British still ruled Nigeria. Geoffrey is an officer of the East African Company in Onitsha and, like an anthropologist, deeply interested in the history of the Ibo people. Initially, Maou imagines Africa to be a land of savages but on reaching Onitsha, she confronts a decadent world of British civil servants, who “spent their time playing bridge, drinking, and spying on each other, and their wives, cramped by their respectable principles, counting their pennies and speaking harshly to their maids, waiting for the return ticket to England”. Gradually she too, like her son, begins to get fascinated by the African way of life, not only the people, but the plants and animals of this faraway land, and its beauty. Geoffrey, who becomes more and more sympathetic towards the natives, is finally dismissed from service. As Sabine Rhodes, a lackey of the colonisers, tells Maou, “My dear signorita, you must realise we see people like your husband pass through here every day, people who think they are going to change every thing. I am not implying that he is wrong, any more than you are, but one must be realistic, one must see things as they are and not as one would like them to be. We are colonisers, not the benefactors of mankind.” The novel ends on a note of rebellion against the white rulers and points towards the coming of the neocolonialism of conglomerates which would finally begin another form of economic exploitation of a country rich in oil.

Colonial history is reconstructed through the confrontations of a European family with the phenomena and events that have significantly affected the social and cultural environment under the impact of the clash of civilisations and the emerging “otherness” of a community that has been colonised. The traditional, close-knit, pre-colonial Ibo society has been scarred by the imposition of an alien culture leading to the dramatic erosion of its age-old character of power and unity visible in its institutions and cosmography. The clash of the traditional and the modern, the fusion of the old and the new, of the past and the present, brings out the play of difference and confrontation that is particular to colonial history.

Rational response

Le Clézio has a heightened awareness of the injury done to Africa and is a master craftsman in fashioning a text that is based not only on emotion, but also on a rational re-examination of a history that has been diluted and misconceived by a biased European agenda. For him, novel writing becomes an art form to convey, in the words of Chinua Achebe “where we went wrong” and to “explore in depth the human condition”. For this, the novelist needs a “sense of history” which is necessary for the representation of the African world view in all its nuances. And Le Clézio, the new Nobel Laureate, possesses that craft.

The landscape that Le Clézio constructs in this extremely exemplary novel becomes one of the chief personas that interacts with the inhabitants in a manner that evokes a deeply evocative geography of the mind. Its sincerity is derived from his personal experience of visiting Africa. The novel is three dimensional, bringing out clearly and realistically the heritage that has been lost and the new age that now dawns on Africa, a far cry from its rhythms and sensuousness, from its closeness to the mythical imagination that the brutality of colonial rule extinguished. It is indeed, in the words of the translator Alison Anderson, an “almost mythological evocation of local history and beliefs” along with a significant account of the tragedy of colonial wars through the multiple perspectives of father, mother and child.