David Diop: Magic for this time

The Gate of the journey of no returnis the nickname given to the island of Gorée, the last stopover for Africans rounded up before reaching the Americas with chains in their hands and feet, never to return. In 1750, Michel Adanson, a young 23-year-old scientist and botanist, arrived in a French concession to study the flora of Senegal. His project: to create a universal encyclopedia of living things in 120 volumes. The project of a lifetime.

The novel begins as a classical work of the 18th century. It is a Michel Adanson at the end of his life that we discover, still in these studies. From this painstaking work, he will have excluded his daughter, Aglaé. The latter, on the occasion of a development of her garden into a large botanical garden in the castle offered by her father-in-law, renews contact with her old father around the passion of the encyclopedist. When the latter dies, she discovers a secret drawer in which is the old man’s diary. He reveals his secret: an adventure that changed his life forever. The novel then switches to the intimate story.

A mystery: a young woman, Maram, who disappeared in the forest three years earlier, considered dead or sold to slavers, and who is rumored to have returned. Fascinated by this legendary tale, Michel Adanson, with a king’s son, Ndiak, and several men, decides to go in search of this snake-skinned woman. It is the soul of the naturalist like Eurydice that of Orpheus. An African journey and the opportunity to meet the deep and intimate Senegal: its kingdoms, its principles, its ancient magic, its violence without malignancy.

A story in which the author strives to rediscover the freshness of the gaze of Europeans of that time on worlds to be discovered. The century of Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire: from Zadig, Candide, Le supplement au voyage de Bougainville, the discourse on the sciences and the arts, the discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men… Eyes focused on their time, often with playfulness. This novel is also a tale. His message is that, hollow, of Michel Adanson to his daughter: do not judge the other, do not despise the other, be curious about otherness. A novel of transmission between a father and a daughter.

With his activities as a writer, David Diop pursues a career as a teacher-researcher, and it is in this context that he has been working for fifteen years on the European representation of Africa. If he chose to rely on the historical figure of Michel Adanson, it is for the originality of his outlook in his time. He applies himself to learning Wolof, eats African food, respects his subject, and strives to experience what he is going to talk about.

A choice of character that departs from what we imagine about an eighteenth century man. David Diop also did not wish to pastich the eighteenth century voice in the language of Adanson, while not sacrificing the sustained register of that time. A century where the language is sublime. Regardless, Adanson is only a passer here: the external gaze on a world full of beauty and fury, like the young intellectual in Alexis Zorba by Nikos Kazantzakis. Michel Adanson, French naturalist from a time of change, he who died in 1806, encountered African magic. A theme treated without any irony. With a respect that we find little in French literature.

A snake, the rab of Maram: the Daemon among the Greeks, the Guardian Angel of Christianity where, for monotheism, the earth was pushed back towards the wrong.

Nevertheless, this novel is much more ” classic ” than Soul Brothers: much more controlled, more expected, more edifying. The process also shows some limitations. In the story told by the botanist, a part is devoted to the story of Maram. A story within a story that weakens the credibility of the novel. The author gets away with this pirouette expressed by his character: “The more I write, the more I feel like a writer“.

The look at slavery is subtle and brought back to the height of the times. Hierarchical societies, whether African or French, portrayed with accuracy and force. David Diop shows us a pre-colonial era: the French and Europeans in general do not control his African territories. They open counters there, obtain concessions.

A novel of the pleasure of writing, of wisdom, of erudition, of knowledge: a lookgreenbotanist.

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David Diop: Magic for this time

Hank Gilbert