NOT TO BE MISSED
"Le voyage en Afrique de Lara Simpson", a novel by Michèle MANCEAUX
Paris: Seuil, 1985. (252p.).
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Lara Sampson's journey to Africa begins like that of many travellers: a stretch of dirt road, a lonely small hotel room, a dead phone and a limited range of drinks to fight the oppressing heat. Lara is in her fifties, wealthy, recently widowed and intent on reconnecting with her long-lost daughter Elisabeth. However, what seemed at first a rather simple operation rapidly turns out to be a dangerous adventure. Unbeknown to her mother, Elisabeth has been put under surveillance by the local authority: a white woman condemned for terrorist activities in Germany and married to a black Muslim cannot pass unnoticed, especially when her husband is suspected of having links with Tripoli.
But Lara knows precious little of her daughter's life and current situation. Elisabeth left home in anger decades ago, as a teenager, and it was only in the newspapers that Lara had learned of her arrest, condemnation and subsequent jailing. Except for a harsh and disparaging letter long ago, Lara had received no news of her daughter and knew nothing of her whereabouts, least of all the people she had associated with after her release from prison. It is thus, with some trepidation, that Lara learns from the two "security officers", who pay her a visit at her hotel shortly after her arrival, that Elisabeth is indeed living in the country, that she is married to an African engineer she met in Germany, but was strongly advised not to get in touch with her. The thinly veiled threats of these men, however, does not put a damper on her determination to find her child and to mend fences. Neither does the short letter she receives shortly afterwards from Elisabeth herself, advising her to return home as soon as possible.
Finding people able to help her track down her daughter is yet another story. Suffice it to say that good fortune rather than James Bond-like skills allows Lara, in the end, to fulfil part of her ambition. And the few weeks she spends in the country in search of an elusive white woman married to a black engineer provides her with the opportunity to meet a wide range of unconventional individuals and to reflect upon her own life. Thus an exciting plot, a good array of issues, interesting characters and an introspective main character who makes Lara Sampson's journey to Africa a thoughtful and entertaining read.
The path that led young Elisabeth from the Hotel Westminster at Le Touquet-Paris-Plage to a remote corner of Africa is, for example, an astute exposition of teenagers cast adrift because they get everything from their parents except love and understanding. Elisabeth is born to a rich family, but her parents lack of empathy towards others herself included has dire consequences. In her eyes, her father is just a contemptible bully who thinks that "one does not show one's feelings and that children have to manage on their own". (p.19) As for her mother, she has no social conscience and is only interested in keeping up appearances. This sorry state of affairs grinds Elisabeth down and when she leaves home, hating her parents, she is only interested in forgetting her childhood, thus becoming an easy prey to activists, keen to change the world by taking the law into their own hands.
"It is very easy to enter into such an organisation" she says. "One begins with putting up a friend, helping out another and from persuasion to arm-twisting, one gets more and more involved. In the beginning, I did very little ... I ran errands ... Belonging to a group was fulfilling my desire for rupture. I even felt happy to receive orders from the group. It was exhilarating to belong to a secret society that endowed ordinary people with innocence and virtue... Some militants were making disparaging comments about women. They were arguing that they were only joining the organisation to make love: only males had political motivation they said, ergo my determination in carrying suitcases full of explosives... With our nice faces and little girl look we learned to shoot and, in 1975, I robbed a cinema's cashier at gun- point... Prison was my first step towards freedom". (pp.229-231)
The second step could have been her departure for Africa with husband Idriss and the subsequent birth of their little son. It was not to be; not because of her unsavoury past as a terrorist but, paradoxically, because she was married to a black man: racism proved to be as strong in her adoptive country as it had been in France where she spent her childhood, in England where her father came from and in Germany where she met her husband. "Idriss wants to make a genuine African out of our son, but the other children gave him the nickname 'Iowo', the White" (p.206). In addition, Idriss' black employees disliked their boss who, they said, behaved like an old colonist, punishing harshly the thieves and the malingerers. (p.208) Conjointly, the English and Italian people working with the company spurned him because he was an African, shunning his wife and keeping the couple in total isolation.
To make matters worse, "the government is seeing spies everywhere" (p.225) and the country which is in perpetual political turmoil is fearing elusive threats from "Muslim terrorists" who have taken refuge in neighbouring countries. In this climate dominated by competing security agencies displaying total disregard for human rights and individuals' freedom, one never knows exactly what tomorrow will bring. That is true for Elisabeth, Idriss and Lara, but also for the bunch of French teachers who met Lara in the "Bar du Souvenir" (p.18) shortly after her arrival. Their fortuitous befriending with her puts them immediately under surveillance. That, the Maths teacher realises, with little surprise, when she is arrested and roughly interrogated in the middle of the night, only to be eventually released at dawn with the obligation to spy on Lara and to report on her every move.
Lara Simpson's journey to Africa is an echo of the early 1980s, but it can also be read as an epic tale of the 21st century. What is especially interesting moreover, is the way it shows the universal nature of the big issues that destroy the mind before killing the body: racism, sexism, lack of compassion, fanaticism, exclusion, etc. These are not evils restricted to one epoch, one side of the world, one class or one people. They are turpitudes hurting everyone everywhere, Black and White, rich and poor. In this respect, it is fascinating to discover the similarity between Lara's and her daughter Elisabeth's traumatic experience of childhood, in spite of their vastly different upbringing: Lara was stigmatised because she grew up the daughter of a staunch communist idolising the French proletariat, whereas Elisabeth was muffled by the social conventions laid down by her English upper-class father. But both women are stifled by the same uncompromising attitude of a dominating father-figure, thus their attempt to kill him symbolically: one in marrying the arch enemy, that is a rich businessman with no compassion for the lower class, and the second by joining a bunch of disgruntled youths before tying the knot with a black immigrant. That however does not bring them the freedom they are longing for. Much more needs to be done if one wants to be reconciled with oneself.
The tyrannical forces that contrive our lives are not so much the threats engineered by manipulative people and governments. They are closer to home and tend to emerge from personal fears and frustrations buried within ourselves and hard to handle. When Lara Simpson arrives in Africa she is like a zombie who has wasted her life, but when she leaves the place, she knows, as the saying goes, that life can begin at fifty. Did she learn much about Africa? Probably not, but the little man she holds in her arms tells her of the promise of a different world: "A fabulous phenomenon she has never observed before: a child who, without killing his ancestors, pushes them beyond reproaches and conflicts. Lara is taken by an unknown feeling, as if she was reaching the open air, dizzy with the wind; as if she had been hit with the revelation of her own eternity" (p.248).
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities