Readers of David Diop’s previous novel, which won the International Booker prize and already feels like a classic of war fiction, probably won’t have forgotten the experience. At Night All Blood Is Black is narrated by a young Senegalese soldier recruited to fight for France in the first world war and brutalised in the trenches. Visceral horror, incantatory language and delicate thinking were welded in its slender form. Now Diop has brought his capacious mind to bear on an earlier period of encounter between Europe and Africa. Beyond the Door of No Return is the story of a French Enlightenment botanist who travels to Senegal to study plants and finds himself overwhelmed by love for an African woman.
Michel Adanson is an old man by the time he writes this tale of passion in a leatherbound journal, hoping that his daughter will find and read it. Releasing emotions that have been tightly guarded for the intervening 50 years, he goes back in memory to the hot night in 1752 when, in the village of Sor, he first heard about a woman who had been abducted and taken into slavery but, it was said, had somehow returned. Like a knight keen for a quest, but with the viable pretext of studying the plants en route, he sets out towards Cap-Vert to find her.
His obsession with Maram Seck, and his deathbed account of the secret grief he brought back from Africa, are Diop’s exuberantly imagined additions to the recorded life of the French naturalist Michel Adanson (1727-1806), who produced a Histoire naturelle du Sénégal after his return to Paris, though most of the research to which he dedicated his later years remained unpublished. It’s hard to imagine a more gripping or fertile subject for Diop’s fictional exploration. What might Adanson, that brilliant young man of the 1750s, have felt and thought in Africa that he could not write up for the Académie des sciences? How would he tell it?
Romantically and dramatically is how he tells it here, with a delight in narrative that honours Senegalese oral culture. Though Adanson writes in French – translated for this English edition by Sam Taylor – he emphasises the fact that most of the conversations he describes were in Wolof, shaped by its particular cadences and subtleties. It is one of his pained criticisms of his European contemporaries that they persist in assuming the inferiority of Africans without troubling to learn their languages. The “wonderfully tender” tongue of the Wolof people is, he thinks, the key to understanding its speakers: “All the treasures of their humanity are compressed within it.”
Adanson evokes potent scenes of speech and listening. “Eyes raised to the stars”, a village chief talks into the night, making Adanson feel a tiny being in the immensity of a mysterious world. At the centre of the novel is Maram’s own narrative, as Adanson remembers her telling it in a village hut faintly lit by the blue phosphoresence of sea water.
If this sounds too much like sentimental exoticism, watch out for Diop’s ways of undercutting it. The Wolof mourner speaking so movingly with his eyes to the stars might be an incestuous raping uncle who has sold his niece. The fish-filled tub of phosphorescent saltwater has not been arranged for the purpose of bathing the mesmerised Adanson in atmospheric “sea light”, but as a feeding trough for the resident snake.
This is a novel with enough frame narratives to make the ghost of Joseph Conrad come and listen; the story told by Adanson is itself surrounded by other people, other considerations. Diop takes a risk in devoting the long first section to Adanson’s daughter Aglaé, her complicated middle life, and her feelings about a father more interested in compiling his Famille des plantes than in his own young family. Though this is deeply appealing biographical terrain, it’s not clear where the central path of the novel will open up. By the end we can return with pleasure to this beginning, meeting Aglaé in her greenhouse, understanding how far this is a book about inheritances that come late or in roundabout ways and are sometimes not wanted at all. The inheritors have their own lives to be getting on with. That fact provides a nice counterweight to the grandeur of emotion with which Adanson tells his tale.
The plants are not wholly ousted from the plot by human drama. Adanson reflects on lost ebony forests felled to make marquetry desks, and then burns down a forest. Maram, a natural healer, understands herself as intimately connected with the flora and fauna of the bush. She wraps herself in the skin of a giant boa, the demon-spirit who possesses and protects her. Erotically and intellectually attracted, not to say possessed, Adanson comes wonderingly to admire her potent relationships with other species.
But the devastating forces of transatlantic slavery surround them. Adanson stands in the haunted desert and wonders “how many lineages of men and women had vanished into the horizon of the ocean”. Diop’s title alludes to the Island of Gorée, the largest of the fortress towns from which captured Africans were shipped away. It was known as “la porte du voyage sans retour”. Gorée is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, protected in remembrance of what happened there and those who suffered. Diop’s book is another kind of memorial, one that moves with lively complexity from scenes of fantastical revenge to the melancholy of a traveller who kept silent too long.
Beyond the Door of No Return by David Diop, translated by Sam Taylor, is published by Pushkin.
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