Almost overnight, David Diop, a French-Senegalese literature professor and writer, rose to international fame when he won the 2021 British International Booker Prize for his novel The Nights of Our Black Blood. Born in Paris in 1966 to a French mother and a Senegalese father, Diop grew up in Senegal and teaches African literature in French at the University of Pau in southwestern France.
His award-winning novel is devoted to an unknown chapter in the history of World War I – the use of the so-called “Senegalese archers” in trench warfare in World War I, the black soldiers of the French. The colony of Senegal, who conscripted for military service alongside their colonial masters and from the thousands killed on the battlefields of Verdun. In the form of a prose poem, the novel presents the complaint and self-accusation of a young Senegalese soldier driven insane by the rigors of combat, transformed into an inhumane butcher, to match the caricature of a savage savage. Which eggs painted from the beginning.
In his new novel A Journey of No Return, David Diop once again takes on a chapter of Senegal’s colonial history – this time the slave trade practiced by the French colonial power from the coasts of Senegal in the 18th century, where the island of Gorée was a notorious hub for the shipment of African slaves to USA. This is said from the perspective of a white man, French botanist, ethnologist and explorer Michel Adanson.
Addanson is a historical figure. He traveled to Senegal in the mid-18th century to research the local flora and fauna and study the lifestyle of African coastal tribes. His excursion titled “Michael Adanson’s Letter from his Journey to Senegal and into the Country,” published in 1773 with the German translation of the Erlangen botanist Johann Christian Schreiber, vividly describes the plants, animals, and people of Senegal. in a detailed manner. David Diop drew inspiration from this travel novel. He could plunder her. He owes him the locations and physical significance of his narrative: the terrain, the local tropical colour, and the bizarre descriptions of nature. A number of the people mentioned by name in the Addanson Report, the local village elders as well as the heads of the French colonial administration, appear as characters in Diop’s novels. However, the tragic love story at the heart of the novel is Diop’s own invention.
The novel takes an indirect turn before getting down to business. The story of a failed father and daughter is told in the first fifty pages. On his deathbed in Paris, the elderly botanist Adanson summarizes his life as a researcher and questions his life’s work, the systematic description of the botanist in the manner of a universal encyclopedia. He suspects that another botanist’s revolutionary methodology has diminished the value of his life’s work: it was the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linney who historically won the botany race in botany. Adanson’s daughter watches her father’s death and silently accuses him of neglecting the family through his meticulous and crazy research work, and that he is responsible for their unhappy marriages, which were essentially a search for surrogate fathers.
But the main interest of the novel is not the scientific failure of a forgotten eighteenth century natural scientist. David Diop uses a somewhat rickety literary trick to finally get to his actual subject: After Addanson’s death, his daughter discovers his father’s notebooks in his secretary’s secret room, which reveals the secret of his life. “Of course, an old manuscript,” Umberto Eco’s reader sighs with nostalgia. In these secret notebooks, Adanson reveals the pivotal experience of his life – his love affair with the beautiful young African Maram during his stay in Senegal. With her name on his lips the old man died.
The main part of the novel is devoted to Adanson’s novel about this passion of love that ended in tragedy. After the young explorer discovers the mysterious disappearance of Maram, the niece of the village elder, in a forest village, he decides to stop searching for plants and animals in order to get to the truth of this mystery. In fact, he finds Maram who is hiding from the slaves as a knowledgeable village wizard and shaman, and falls in love with her. What she has to tell is an adventurous story of sexual violence, slavery, exploitation and colonial crimes. David Diop decorates this performance of cruel colonial policies with the strange flair of ancient witchcraft practices, which the protagonist knows thanks to Maram. Its totem animal, a gigantic hindrance, plays its part as well as all kinds of manifestations of magical thinking, all against the backdrop of the brutal slave trade on Gore Island, which the naive naturalist Adanson has yet to notice. Only now that his lover had fallen into the clutches of the slave hunters did he realize what was happening in front of his eyes from the very beginning.
The novel is a strange hybrid. Blending a critique of European colonialism and racism with parts of the visceral journey of natural history, he turns it into a tropical adventure story that taps into white man’s fantasies about the dark practices of the black continent. The historical suffering of enslaved Africans is combined with a whimsical black-and-white-flavoured love story that perilously approaches the edges of the hall’s kitsch. To call this an easy-to-digest narrative cocktail would be a lie.