“The door to the journey of no return”: African roots

“I made this trip to Senegal to discover plants and I met men there,” says a French naturalist.

A few months before his death, and fifty years after the events, Michel Adanson, the protagonist of The door of the journey of no return, the third novel by David Diop, is a sort of misanthropic scholar, “voluntary prisoner of one of those encyclopedia dreams of the century of philosophers”, whose sole aim had been to rise to the top of botanical science. .

For this, he had sacrificed most of his life, starting with his daughter, whom he had never been close. But the man also had another obsession.

When she died, her daughter Aglaé discovered a notebook in which her father had recorded, in 1806, six months earlier, the memories of a five-year trip to Senegal. A trip, we will understand, from which he never really returned.

At 23, dreaming of joining the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, the young botanist had embarked on his own account abroad, something rather rare for the time. He was an open-minded man who landed in Africa in 1748.

For him, the historical monuments of Senegal “are found in their stories, their witticisms, their tales, transmitted from one generation to another by their historian-singers, the griots”. In his eyes too, Wolof, which he is learning, is well worth French. It is a language, he writes, in which they “pile up all the treasures of their humanity: their belief in hospitality, brotherhood, their poems, their history, their knowledge of plants, their proverbs and their philosophy of the world. “.

On a whim, he had decided to go in search of a woman who would have returned from the Americas after three years of slavery. He will find his trace near the island of Gorée, one of the hubs of the slave trade for three centuries. Accompanied by the teenage son of a local chef and a small crew, he goes in search of this woman, under the pretext of counting plants, trees, shells, land and sea animals to describe it.

Maram, he will find out, was sold for a gun by a libidinous uncle who had tried to rape her. Seduced by her great beauty, by the botanical knowledge and healing talents of this “black Eve”, the young botanist immediately falls in love with the fugitive. For her part, she will see in him a European – and a man – different from the others.

With The door of the journey of no return, David Diop seems to have been freely inspired by the real Michel Adanson (1727-1806), famous French naturalist – author of an important memoir on the baobab, he would also have “discovered” gum arabic, indigo, mangroves and the oil palm.

After Soul brother (Seuil, 2018), in which a black soldier recounted the Franco-German trenches of the war of 14-18, the Franco-Senegalese writer, specialist of the XVIIIe century and university professor in Pau, born in Paris in 1966 but having spent part of his youth in Senegal, this time sends a Frenchman to African soil.

Without Manichaeism, without ignoring the role played by certain Wolof kings in the slave trade either, he places this man of the Enlightenment, torn between this impossible love and his desire to gain access to the institution, in front of slavery and the overwhelming domination of man – over women as well as over nature.

If it is difficult to believe in this passion as devouring as it is platonic, badly served among other things by a somewhat cold narration, David Diop’s novel has other merits. Especially when he celebrates open-mindedness and meeting people.

The door of the journey of no return

David Diop, Seuil, Paris, 2021, 256 pages

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