Review: La porte du voyage sans retour, by David Diop
A very good book! This makes my 'potential best of 2021' list now 31 books long! SOMEONE SEND HELP! Even my recently purchased big bookcase cannot handle all these books I'm throwing at it!
Anyway, this is the story of Michel Adanson, a French botanist who was a contemporary of Linnaeus, Diderot, Voltaire, all them bigwigs. The novel is set through the framing device of a long letter written to his daughter Aglaé, which she only discovers after his death, and we follow along with her as she reads the story of her father's life for the first time. The central action takes place in Senegal, where Adanson travelled to study the native flora and fauna immediately before the start of the slave trade. He hears the story of a near-mythical healer called Maram, who supposedly escaped being sold into slavery and is now being sought by her family for her healing wisdom, and so he sets out to find her and hear her story for himself. Everything unwinds from there.
This is a really sad, dark story, but the writing is so beautiful it almost transcends the emotion of the novel. Diop grew up in Senegal, and he writes about the places and the settings with a real sense of awe that works magnificently well in the format and the framing device he's chosen. You really get the sense of time and place and atmosphere, and the characters fit so well into the place that it's more like reading a piece of theatre with characters suited to the setting rather than the other way round. This could detract from the story itself, but Diop is such an assured writer that it just makes the entirety of the novel feel richer.
The emotional heft of the novel is perfectly paced out over the story as well - the emotional climaxes are just a smidgen off the narrative climaxes, which basically means that you never really feel like you have time to catch your breath before you're sucker-punched. I was tearing up before the final chapter itself, which ends on such a surprising, shocking note that it truly felt like Diop was just twisting the knife with a little smirk as he handed in his manuscript (yes, I know I mixed metaphors; do bite me). Perhaps that ending was a bit much - it certainly would have raised an eyebrow if, unlike me, you hadn't decided to fully buy into the smoothing over of coincidences needed to keep the plot moving -, but I liked the brutality of it. I've read a critique that it buys into shock value for the sake of shock value, but I think that's just a general criticism about novels that centre the slave trade and don't make heroes of any of the people involved in it.
I really loved this book, even though it was difficult to read and was basically about a lot of morally flawed people doing morally questionable, and oftentimes downright evil, things. It's also a novel about storytelling and the history that we keep and pass on oftentimes without even being aware of it, and how memories warp and change and change us along with them. It's a very beautiful, emotionally difficult, gripping and compelling, and I look forward to reading every other book Diop publishes.
Just a quick word of warning - this book is not yet available in an English translation, but based on the success of At Night All Blood Is Black (his previous novel, the one that won the International Booker Prize) it probably isn't far behind.