Onitsha (novel)

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Onitsha is a novel by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio , published in French in 1991 and translated into German in 1993 . The title refers to the Nigerian city ​​of Onitsha , where most of the action takes place during a year between 1948 and 1949.


Onitsha ” is the novel, alienating depiction of important autobiographical stations that JMG Le Clézio takes up again with autobiographical intent in 2001 in “ Der Afrikaner ”.
The novel is divided into four parts: " A Long Journey ", " Onitsha ", " Aro Chuku " and " Far From Onitsha ". The narrative perspective is mostly that of the 12-year-old Fintan, but can also switch to that of his mother Maria Luisa, Maou by him, called Marilu by his father, and that of his father Geoffroy Allen.
The last chapter takes place 20 years later in the late 1960s in England and in the south of France.

"A long journey"

Dakar seen from Gorée Island

Maria Luisa Allen and her son Fintan travel on March 14, 1948 from Bordeaux on the passenger steamer " Surabaya " of the Holland-Africa Line to Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta , where they arrive on April 13, 1948 and are picked up by Geoffroy.
Soon after their marriage in Nice in 1935, Geoffroy went to Africa, where his wife was to follow him. This was helped by the fact that he found work for the British colonial trading company United Africa Company in Onitsha. He had once decided to travel overseas because of his desire to travel, and for Africa because of his enthusiasm for the culture of Meroe , the trace of which he was convinced led to the heart of Africa and which he wanted to research (p. 95). The birth of Fintan and the war events in Italy , Spain and Germany repeatedly delayed living together, so that Fintan got to know his father very late as a stranger to him. On the first evening of his trip, he saw the “ green ray ” flashing in the last sunlight , which penetrated him like a finger through the pupil “ and touched the top of
the skull ” (p. 16). While they repeatedly dock in ports on the African coast from Dakar , Fintan's will to get involved with foreigners becomes more and more demanding, even if he shrinks from meeting his father. His mother, on the other hand, who is called " the African woman " by fellow passengers because of her dark complexion - she comes from Italy and was born in Fiesole - and who dreams of future happiness on deck (p. 73), has the impression of none when she goes ashore To get more air, so much do they repel foreign life and its smells (p. 36 f.).



Maou's dream of Africa dissolves in Onitsha: She experiences monotonous days; As a company employee, her husband is as remote from adventure as the jungle is from plantations. She fears the daily thunderstorms and the sound of the nightly drums. She suffered from amoebic dysentery for a long time and kept having fever attacks. There is no place for it in colonial society because it does not conform to their customs and the contempt of Africans. When she takes offense that the new District Officer, who arrived on the same ship and took up his post, has his swimming pool dug by chained black convicts, or sits at the piano in the club to play Erik Satie , her husband is advised not to bring her to social gatherings anymore.

Fintan lives most of the day out of the control of his parents, even though he is repeatedly exposed to the " cold rage " of his father, whom he instinctively hates (pp. 73, 175). The relatives on his mother's side had already taught him in Europe to call him “ porco inglese ” (Italian: “English pig”) (p. 75). He wins the friendship of Bony, a local boy, son of a fisherman, who takes him with him into his family and lets him participate in his lifestyle. They communicate in pidgin English and with gestures. Like Boney, he starts walking barefoot, so the soles of his feet become hard as wood. He knows “ that he was in the heart of his dream, in the hottest, wildest place, as it were in the place through which the blood of his body flowed. At night the drums rang out ”(p. 91). Following the example of his mother, who writes in notebooks in her mother tongue and from whom he repeatedly has Italian verses recited, he has already started a story in the ship's cabin with the title “ A Long Journey ”, which he is now continuing to write (p . 55 f., 90 f., 119). In it he lets a female main character travel to the interior of Africa to the black queen Oya in Gao .

Remains of the royal city of Meroe

Over Geoffroy's ongoing passion for the story of Meroe, father and son grow closer, so that Fintan picks up ideas for his story. Geoffroy introduces him to the story of Meroe: “ Meroe, the city of the black queen, the last representative of Osiris , the last descendant of the pharaohs . Kemit, the black country. In 350 Meroe was sacked by King Ezana from Axum . He entered the city with his troops, mercenaries from the land of the Nuba , and the whole people of Meroe, the scribes, the scholars, the architects, with their flocks and sacred treasures, followed the queen in search of one new world ... ”(p. 133).
It is an Englishman, Sabine Rodes, who lives apart from the European community, who is interested in the history of Africa and who provided Geoffroy with all the important literature. He speaks Fulfulde and Arabic and lives alone in a stately home with his African servant Okahwo. He calls Okahwo his son and says that everything in his house belongs to him. Fintan feels attracted to him because Sabine Rodes brings him closest to African reality (pp. 109–117). In the end, however, it becomes clear that Sabine Rodes lived under a false name and was actually Officer of the Order of the British Empire until his death in Onitsha in 1968 (p. 285). He presents himself as someone who is convinced of the decline of the Empire and wants to be a witness to it (p. 199).

"Aro Chuku"

Geoffroy is mistaken for his fascination with Meroe alone; his profession and the European colonial society inspire him with disgust (p. 98). Fintan, on the other hand, thinks he has never lived anywhere else. He's grown up and his features have become sharper. Maou knows that they cannot stay (p. 163), but increasingly she has the experience of trusting African women and also feels physically connected to them, especially with Oya, who is pregnant by Okahwo (p. 167-174) . She has beautiful features, is deaf and dumb, lives alone, wears a mission dress and a cross on a chain of cowrie shells . Nobody knows where it comes from. At times she lives in the river on an English shipwreck that was once " the most powerful ship in the Empire " (p. 150), on which she is both impregnated and given birth to her son there.
Okahwo's face shows tattoos that refer to the story of the oracle of Aro Chuku (= children of the sun), which was destroyed by the English around 1900 . The English destroyed it to break the resistance of the locals to their colonization , as the enemies of Meroe did when they destroyed the temples as a token of their victory (p. 143 f.). Okahwo leads Geoffroy on the Cross River, which flows east of the Niger , to Aro Chuku, where he thinks he has " finally found the place of new life " and the connection to Meroe (p. 222). However, he experiences a flea invasion, sinks into the fever of black malaria and gives up the belief in a paradise to be found.
Meanwhile, its replacement from the United Africa Company has been pursued. While he and his family are preparing the return trip to Europe, where he will be better helped, and while he and his wife are getting very close again in their relationship that has become more distant and fathering a child, Okahwo leaves with Oya and the newly born son on the Niger Onitsha without Sabine Rodes knowing anything. The wreck of what was once the mightiest ship in the Empire is sinking for good, and downstream the major oil companies begin prospecting the area for their wells.

"Far from Onitsha"

The plot jumps back to 1968 and 1969. Fintan works as a tutor for French and Latin at the same school near Bristol , where he was also housed in the boarding school after returning from Africa. He had to be careful about sharing something about his time in Africa with his classmates in order not to become the sadistic mockery of the class. In 1958 he was left alone in England when his family moved to the south of France for health reasons. When the Biafra war breaks out, he considers returning to Onitsha. This " war wipes out memories, the names he knew " (p. 270). He notes a new word that marks an accompanying damage in the dispute over the oil wealth: " Kwashiorkor ", a " sonorous, terrible name of death ", before which the hair changes color and the skin breaks like parchment (p. 275) .

He writes a letter to his sister Marima, who bears the name of the black domestic worker who became pregnant at the same time as Marilu. He reminds her that she does not belong to England, where she was born, but according to African belief to Onitsha, because that is where she was conceived (p. 273 f.). Against the war he shares his memories with her: “ Even now, in the distance, I can feel the smell of fish being fried on the bank of the river, the smell of yams and fufu . I close my eyes and have the sweet taste of peanut soup in my mouth. I feel the lazy smell of the mist that rises over the grassy plain in the evening, I hear the screaming of the children ”(p. 275).

When his father was dying in 1969, Fintan left England and went to the south of France as well. Geoffroy dies with his dream of a new Meroe on the Niger. But “ the way to Meroe is a way without end ” (p. 283).


In 1993, Madeleine Borgomano sees Onitsha as a new search for lost time . Le Clézio is expressly following in the wake of old models and has written an educational and initiation novel. It is obvious that Jules Verne's novel The Green Ray is alluded to, but Joseph Conrad is also evoked with a heart of darkness when the lined up skulls in the oracle site of Aro Chuku are remembered.
Borgomano emphasizes that Geoffroy Allen's fascination with Meroe is not an isolated fad, but rather an image of Africa is drawn up through him, as Cheikh Anta Diop had scientifically worked out. Africa is thus released from its alleged lack of history and connected to the oldest roots of the occidental world.

Hansjörg Graf presented the novel in Die Zeit on November 4, 1994 and sees in it "after the rhetorical fire magic and the word cascades" of the younger Le Clézio a "smallest expenditure of linguistic means" in a relaxed narration. “Primordial phenomena of nature such as (...) the river and the sea set their mark; the literary equivalents are simple forms ”. Fintan as Le Clézio's alter ego knows that the Africa of his childhood no longer exists; For him, Aro Chuku is just another word for truth.


  • Jean-Marie G. Le Clézio: Onitsha (Collection Folio; Vol. 2472). Gallimard, Paris 2008, ISBN 978-2-07-038726-7 .
    • German translation: Onitsha. Novel . Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 2008, ISBN 978-3-462-04119-4 (translated by Uli Wittmann).

Individual evidence

  1. The following information corresponds to the paperback edition published by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch in 2008.
  2. Madeleine Borgomano: Onitsha, de JMG Le Clézio, ou l'Afrique perdue . In: Régis Antoine (ed.): Carrefour de Cultures (Études littéraires françaises; vol. 55). Gunter Narr, Tübingen 1993, ISBN 978-3-8233-4610-4 , pp. 243-253.
  3. Madeleine Borgomano (1993), p. 249.
  4. Hansjörg Graf: Enchanted and transformed . In. The time of November 4, 1994.