From a man with a cheesy name (ha ha)…Edem Awumey
I’m not sure where to place this book in the world. Rather like the main character. But we’ll get to him in a moment. The author, Edem Awumey, is from Togo. The MC is from Guinea. But, he’s in exile in Paris. So we don’t really get a sense of Togo or Guinea in the book. It seems ripped from today’s headlines, about Africans fleeing their homelands for Western Europe though, so I will go with Guinea.
There are 3 Guineas, by the way. There is Equatorial Guinea, the only African country where Spanish is spoken, as a result of imperialism. There is Guinea-Bissau, where Portuguese is spoken–second verse, same as the first. And there is Guinea, on the coast, in the Gulf of Guinea, where the MC, Askia, ended up with his family before going to Paris in search of his father. The family is from the interior, fleeing poverty and starvation, although the nation is never specified.
I must say, I thought all along that the search for Askia’s father Sidi ben Sylla Mohammed was futile. Askia doesn’t know why his father left them, or what has happened to the man in the pure white turban. Is he dead? Did he go on ahead? Did he abandon them?
The son is living in a cockroach-infested squat in Paris, having a non-sexual relationship with a Bulgarian girl who claims to have photographed his father 10 years earlier. He’s driving a cab. He’s also fleeing a violent past. I hated the bits about how the kids were so cruel to the dog, though I suspect it is a Western view of the world and the place of animals in it.
“Askia would recount how, in her final delirium, his mother would keep on about the letters that Sidi Ben Sylla Mohammed, his father, was supposed to have sent from Paris. Along with some photos. Which he had never seen. But then one day Askia went off on the same route as the absent one. He did not leave to find the missing father. He could live with gaps in his genealogy. He left because of a strange thing his mother had said. “For a long time we were on the road, my son. And wherever we went, people called us Dirty Feet. If you go away, you will understand. Why they called us Dirty Feet…”
Well, I have been called by a former boyfriend a person with Wandering Feet, so I understand. It sounds romantic until you have to do it, until you have no choice. Until strangers get to say that you stink.
Some reviewers have compared this novel to The Stranger, by Albert Camus. I didn’t see it, but it’s been a long time since I read that work. Apparently Camus was himself a “pied-noir”, or Black Foot, being Algerian of European descent, returning to France after the independence of Algeria.
I thought many things about the book were genius. The wandering theme, relating to slavery, being cast out on the road. The way that no village in Africa would take in the strangers, thinking them the cause of bad luck, as if it were catching. Paris doesn’t want to take them in either–Askia is illegal. The girlfriend, who is herself a Gypsy, wandering borderless. Identity-less in a way.
I recently read an article on why ISIS has made France one of its top targets. I did wonder in light of (more) terror attacks recently–why France? Why not Germany or England or Hungary? One of the reasons proposed online is that France has a larger proportion of Muslim people living there, and terrorism like other crimes is a numbers game. If 1 in 10 people is a burglar, for example, then if you have more people living in your country you’ll have more burglaries–that makes sense–so Switzerland probably has fewer burglaries than China. Another reason is that Paris has a large Muslim slum area in which people are not integrated; are poor and have few opportunities. And I’m sure a third reason is the history of French colonialism and disempowerment of Africans.
I sometimes wonder whether, if the European colonialists could have looked into the future and foreseen their actions coming home to roost, if they would have behaved differently.
Anyway, I enjoyed some parts of this book and others not. I did not like the ending, which was not satisfying. I think it would have been more interesting (but vastly more difficult to write) for Askia to have encountered and confronted his father…but I can see why the author chose the ending he did, particularly if he is paying homage to Camus and Samuel Beckett and that ilk. I don’t like their books.
However, this novel was a Prix Goncourt finalist, so somebody liked it a great deal indeed! I guess it’s one of those where I can admire the writing style and the plotting even as I dislike the characters and the story.
Rating: Three clean but illegal taxicabs.