Image Credit: Rupa Publications
As I finished reading “Onitsha” by J M G Le Clezio, an idea came up in my head. Why not include a couple of new words that I had learnt from the book along with my review? Tipsy Traveler agreed wholeheartedly so here goes. Onitsha won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008 and when I saw it in the bookshop I was a bit surprised. I was expecting a respectably thick volume with pages of tiny print filled with language that I would test my patience. On the contrary, Onitsha is a slim volume filled with lyrical, poetical language that makes pretty simple reading. It tells the story of Fintan who comes with his Italian mother Maou to Onitsha in Nigeria to be with his father Geoffroy (sic). They come at a time when Nigeria is in the vestiges of colonialism but when slavery was still prominent. Fintan befriends Bony who proves to be a major influence in his life. When Fintan and his family go back to England, Fintan finds it difficult to re-adjust to the different setting. Onitsha remains a part of him and he eventually returns for a visit later in his life.
Onitsha is partly autobiographical. Clezio was eight when he, along with his mother and brother, joined his father in the province of Ogoja in Nigeria. It is his time there that proves to be the background for Onitsha. The book is filled with atmosphere – descriptions of rain, muggy hot nights, approaching thunder, the buzz of flies and the chirring of crickets abound. The African landscape seems to come alive in his sketches providing lush sensory delight. The story oscillates in time between the present and the past, as Maou remembers her romance with Geoffroy and her family’s reactions to it.
Onitsha contains powerful images of racism and slavery. But it also shows that not all whites are colonizers through Maou who strongly disapproves of the colonial activities around her. Also, Clezio subverts colonialism in the novel. Africa colonizes Fintan. He becomes one of them. One of the most powerful images that displays this subversion is his natural inclination towards pidgin by the end of the novel.
“When he arrived at the school, Fintan spoke pidgin inadvertently. He said, “He don go nawnaw, he tok say”; he said, “Di book bilong mi.”
Memories of Onitsha sustain Fintan when he has to resume “civilized” life in England.
“Not for one instant have I lost sight of Ibusun, the grassy plain, the tin roofs baking in the sun, the river with its islands – Jersey, Brokkedon.”
Onitsha is a simple yet complex read with many underlying themes, a lot of which I feel I am missing as reviewer Annabel Lee so aptly put. But it doesn’t matter, Fintan’s journey is riveting enough and Onitsha’s landscape and people long remain with you after you put the book down.
Verdict: A langurously delicious read
Interesting words I learnt: Catafalque, Pirogue, Perfidy