The African by J.M.G Le Clézio

From the chapter “Bodies”


Adult narrator Le Clézio; Child Le Clézio; Mother of Le Clézio


Also dating back to that moment, or resulting directly from it, if you will, is the emergence of bodies. My body, my mother’s body, my brother’s body, the bodies of the young boys in the village with whom I played, the bodies of African women on the paths around the house or at the market by the river. Their stature, their heavy breasts, the shiny skin on their backs. The boys’ penises, their pink, circumcised glands. Faces, no doubt, but like leather masks, hardened, stitched with scars, with ritual markings. Protuberant bellies, navels that looked as if a flat stone had been sewn under the skin. The smell of bodies too, the touch of them, the skin that was not rough, but warm and light, bristling with thousands of hairs. I recall a feeling of extreme closeness, of many bodies all around me, a feeling I had never known before, a feeling that was both new and familiar, one that ruled out fear.  


Hands are touching me, running along my arms, over my hair, around the brim of my hat. Among all the people milling around me, there is an old woman – well, I didn’t know she was old. I assume it’s her age that I remarked first because she was different from the naked children and the men and the women of Ogoja, dressed more or less in Western clothing. When my mother comes back (perhaps slightly uneasy about the gathering), I motion toward the woman, “What’s wrong with her? Is she sick?” I remember asking my mother that question. The naked body of that woman, full of folds, of wrinkles, her skin sagging like an empty water pouch, her elongated, flaccid breasts hanging down on her stomach, her dull, cracked, grayish skin, it all seems strange to me, but at the same time true. How could I have ever imagined that woman as my grandmother? And I didn’t feel pity, or horror, but rather love and interest, kindled by having glimpsed a truth, a real-life experience. All I can remember is that question, “Is she sick?” Strangely enough it still burns in my mind today, as if time had stood still. And not the answer – probably reassuring, perhaps a bit embarrassed – my mother gave, “No, she’s not sick, she’s just old.”


Old age, probably more shocking for a child to see on a woman’s body, since ordinarily in France, in Europe – land of girdles and petticoats, of brassieres and slips – women are still  exempt, as they’ve always been, from the disease of aging. I can still feel my cheeks burning, it goes hand in hand with the naïve question and my mother’s brutal response, like a slap. All of that remained unanswered inside of me. The question probably wasn’t: Why has that woman become deformed and worn with old age in that way? But rather: Why have I been lied to? Why has that truth been hidden from me? 


Le Clézio, J. M. G. (2013-06-07). The African (Kindle Locations 76-82 & 103-106). David R. Godine, Publisher. Kindle Edition.  Le Clézio, J. M. G. (2013-06-07). The African (Kindle Locations 93-103). David R. Godine, Publisher. Kindle Edition.



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