NOT TO BE MISSED
"Le ventre de l'Atlantique", a novel by Fatou DIOME
Paris : Editions Anne Carrière, 2003, (296p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Published in 2003, Le ventre de l'Atlantique by Fatou Diome rode the wave of soccer-mania that swept Senegal following their victory over defending world champions France in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup. But this novel is not only about soccer. It abounds with themes, issues, concerns and personal experiences that underpin the onerous search for identity of the narrator. An outcast in the small Senegalese island of Niodior, she considers it equally hard to find her bearings in France where she has been living for ten years. As for her brother Madické, a soccer player who still lives on the island and dreams of meeting his idol, the soccer star Maldini, his only ambition in life is to make a name for himself in the French soccer league. So, he pesters his sister to send him a plane ticket that he believes will open the door to fame and glory.
Telling her young brother that, for a large proportion of foreigners, France is not a land flowing with milk and honey, is a tall order. Too many tales made-up by returning immigrants tell otherwise: That of "The man from Barbès" is a case in point. In the eyes of his compatriots, his life of toil in France brought him not only fame and fortune, but also respectability, a big house, many wives and the only television available in the town. This champion of immigration did not particularly enjoy his black market Rolex, his leather furniture, his freezer, his first three wives and his television, but the sole purpose of this clinquant accumulation of worldly possessions was merely to demonstrate his success and standing in his community.
What the man from Barbès did not tell, however, was the most miserable of existence he lived in France for many years, barely surviving on charity and menial jobs. He had been the victim of both unscrupulous white employers and black compatriots, losing two teeth to a gang of teenagers who did not like his zeal and subservience to his boss when working as a security guard in a local supermarket. He remained for decades an obsequious lackey who could never afford the advantages of the 'French life' that, later on, he was so keen to enumerate to a captive audience.
"I landed in Paris by night, he said, and one may be excused for believing that God had given these people thousands of stars, yellow, blue and red in order to light up their city. It was dazzling ... I lived in this gigantic city of Paris and could not believe such a magnificent town could exist. The Tour Eiffel and L'Obélisque reach to the sky and one would need at least a full day to walk down the Champs Elysées just to admire a bevy of luxury shops overflowing with extraordinary item." (p.96) And his description of the landscape that could come from the tongue of the most dedicated travel agent was completed with other cliches when asked: "And life? How was it over there?". "Ooh! over there! a real life of a king ! Believe me, they are very rich over there. Every couple lives with their children in a luxury apartment, with electricity and running water. It's not like here where four generation live together under the same roof. Everyone has their own car to go to work or to drive their children to school, their own television with channels from the entire world, their own fridge and freezer loaded with good food. They enjoy a very untiring life." (pp.97-98)
This rosy depiction of French life was reinforced by the images coming from afar through his television set: commercials subtly crafted to seduce a gullible audience; images of black soccer players who had made good for themselves and their families while playing for the most prestigious clubs overseas. There were of course many examples of promising young stars who did not make it to the top, people who had been unceremoniously dumped, left destitute and eventually chartered home penniless. But neither Madické nor his friends believed they could be on the losers' side. They were making light of all the difficulties one could experience in leaving their country and their family for an uncertain future. In their eyes, everything labelled "Made in France" was blessed by the gods: "the mere television set that allowed them to follow soccer matches came from France. His owner, a local elder, lived in France. The well-read primary teacher did part of his studies in France. Every one with an important position in the country studied in France. The wives of successive Senegalese Presidents were French ... The trainer of the national soccer team had always been French... thus, on the island, even if no one could distinguish France from Peru on a world map, everybody knew that it rhymed with chance." (p.60)
Madické's sister is aware of all that and does not refute France's grip on its former colonies, its colonisation of the African mind, racism and propaganda, but the originality of her way of thinking is to suggest that it takes two to tango. French spin-doctors are certainly guilty of false advertising, but Niodior's inhabitants are far from being the hapless victims of French propaganda one may think: what they do, say and believe is also the outcome of their own selfish attempts to maintain the status quo and its associated privileges and inequalities. Parents receiving money from their expatriate children show a blind eye to the working conditions of their offsprings just as long as a cheque is in the mail. "Succeeding" means providing for the multitude of parents left behind, unwilling or unable to change their ways and to adapt to new ideas and power structures.
In that context, the village's teacher looks like an exception to the rule: "Let's try to avoid your fathers' mistakes, he tells his pupils, and you will see that even without going overseas, your chance of having a meaningful life here will be better than there. For sure, you should be prepared to travel, to move forward toward a better existence, but do not do it with suitcases; do so with your brains! Let go of the well established ideas that keep you captive of some outdated way of life: polygamy, large numbers of children; all that makes the bed of under-development. No need to study advanced mathematics to understand that the more people there are, the smaller the pieces of the bread to be shared will be."(p.206) But his ideas are considered as subversive, thus the scourge of polygamy remains unchallenged; talking about contraception and family planning is considered a provocation and wives who are unable to provide a male heir for their husbands are ostracised and branded as useless vessels - "calebasses cassées". (p.166)
The reasons that pushed the narrator away from Niodior were also linked to those rigid attitudes and beliefs. Her inward looking community, firmly set in its ways, was very much opposed to integrating foreigners. "Genealogy served as an identity card" (p.90) she says. Outsiders were kept at arm's length. And because she was born an illegitimate child to a man from another town, she stayed alive thanks solely to the determination of her grandmother who raised her as her own daughter despite community animosity. Such inauspicious beginnings could have led the narrator to reject the country of her birth and to embrace wholeheartedly French values: but it did not. For better or worse, inbuilt sense of identity and life experience give rise to a complex and idiosyncratic set of feelings and emotions that determine who we are and what we do. "With my feet shaped by the African soil, I am walking the European dirt: one step after another, like every human being in the world. And yet, I know that my Westerner's walking steps have nothing in common with footseps that led me to discover the back lanes, the beaches, the small tracks and the fields belonging to my grandmother. Everywhere, people are walking, but they never do so towards the same horizon. In Africa I was following the channel of destiny, guided by serendipity and endless hope. In Europe, I am walking in the long tunnel of performance that leads to well established aims and goals." (p.14) "Africa and Europe wonder what part of me belongs to each of them", (p.294) but "the country I am looking for lies somewhere where individuals are appreciated for what they are as a whole ... where identity's attributes are blurred ... where things blend into a burning determination to embrace both pain and joie de vivre." (p.295)
This country can be anywhere; that is what the narrator tries to convey to her brother Madické. Life can change in Niodior if his generation wants it to change. Young Senegalese do not have to look up to France in order to satisfy their passion for soccer; they do not need the old colonial master to give them a life. They do not need to become the under-paid fodder of the French economy or to fight its fratricide battles on the soccer fields of Europe. They can, but they do not have to in order to be successful. Thus the narrator's determination not to send for her brother but to help him find his calling in his home country.
Soccer fans will like this novel that moves along with great energy. It will also appeal to those who are only mildly interested in the game but fascinated by its appeal to contemporary society, the world over. To the latter category of readers Le ventre de l'Atlantique will tell more about people than sport: it shows vividly the difficulty of knowing who we are, above and beyond the conflicting images of ourselves reflected in others' gaze.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities