The Surabaya, an aging three-hundred-ton ship of the Holland Africa Line, had just left the dirty waters of the Gironde estuary, bound for the west coast of Africa, and Fintan looked at his mother as if it were for the first time. Perhaps he had never before realized how young she was, how close to him she was, like the sister he had never had. Not really beautiful, but so alive, so strong. It was late afternoon; the sun illuminated her dark gold-flecked hair, the outline of her profile, her high forehead which rounded sharply to meet her nose, the shape of her lips, her chin. There was a clear fuzz on her skin, like that of a fruit. He watched her; he loved her face.
When he turned ten, Fintan decided he would call his mother only by her nickname. Her name was Maria Luisa, but she was called Maou; Fintan, as a baby, could not pronounce her name, and so it had stuck. He had taken his mother by the hand, looked straight into her eyes, and decided: "From today on I shall call you Maou." He looked so serious that she stood speechless for a moment, then she burst out laughing, a mad laughter that occasionally took hold of her, irresistibly. Fintan had laughed, too, and that had sealed their agreement.
Maou leaned against the wooden handrail and watched the ship's wake, and Fintan watched her. It was late Sunday afternoon, 14 March 1948 – a date Fintan would never forget. The sky and sea were intensely blue, almost violet. The air was still, so the ship must have been moving at the speed of the wind. A few gulls hovered in heavy flight above the rear deck, approaching, then winging away from the mast where the flag with its triple stripes fluttered like an old dish towel. From time to time they dove to the side, calling out in strange harmony with the attendant drone of the propellers.
Fintan watched his mother, and listened with almost painful attention to the sounds around him, to the gulls' cries. He felt the waves sliding under the ship's bow as they rose in a prolonged effort to lift the hull, as if taking a breath.
It was the first time. He looked at Maou's face, the left side, as it gradually became a pure profile in the brilliance of the sky and the sun. Yes, he thought, this was it, this was the first time. And still he did not understand the tightness in his throat, this feeling which made his heart beat and filled his eyes with tears, because it was also the last time. They were going away, nothing would ever be as before. Beyond the white wake the ribbon of land was fading. The silt from the estuary had suddenly given way to the deep blue of the sea. The reed-spiked fingers of sand, where the fishermen's huts looked like toys, and all the strange shapes on shore – towers, beacons, hoop nets, quarries, blockhouses – all were lost to the movement of the sea, drowned in the tide.
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Africa burns like a secret, like a fever. Geoffroy Allen cannot tear his eyes away, not even for a moment; he cannot dream another dream. It is the face sculpted with the marks of the itsi, the masked face of the Umundri. In the morning they wait on the quays of Onitsha, immobile, balancing on one leg, like scorched statues, Chuku's envoys on earth.
It is for them that Geoffroy has remained in this town, despite the horror inspired in him by the offices of the United Africa, despite the Club, despite the Resident and his wife, their dogs who eat nothing but beef filet and sleep under mosquito nets. Despite the climate, despite the routine of the wharf. Despite separation from Maou, and the son born far away whom he did not watch grow up, for whom he is nothing but a stranger.
But they are there every day, on the quay, from dawn, waiting for who knows what, a pirogue to carry them upstream or bring them a mysterious message. Then they leave, they disappear, walking through the tall grass, to the east, on the road to Awgu and Owerri. Geoffroy tries to speak to them, a few words of Ibo, phrases in Yoruba, in pidgin, but they are always silent, not haughty, merely absent, disappearing rapidly in single file along the river, lost to view in the tall grass yellowed by drought. They are the Umundri, the Ndinze, the "ancestors," the "initiated." The people of Chuku, the Sun, circled by his halo as a father is circled by his children.
It is the itsi sign. That is what Geoffroy saw on the faces when he first arrived in Onitsha. The sign carved into the skin of the men's faces, like writing upon stone. It is the sign which entered him, touched his heart, marked him, too, on his too white face, on his skin where from birth there has never been the mark of the burn. But now he feels this burn, this secret. Men and women of the Umundri people, in the streets of Onitsha; absurd shadows wandering in the alleyways of red dust, among the acacia groves, with their herds of goats and their dogs. Only some of them wear on their faces the sign of their ancestor Ndri, the sign of the sun.
Onitsha by J. M. G. Le Clézio,
translated by Alison Anderson, is available wherever books are sold or from the University of Nebraska Press 800.755.1105 and on the web at nebraskapress.unl.edu.
Copyright © 1997 by the University of Nebraska Press.
Éditions Gallimard, Copyright © 1992.
Excerpt selected by the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy.