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David Diop impresses with new novel about French colonial times

The Netherlands got to know French-Senegalese author David Diop a few years ago with his novel More than a brother, an impressive tale of a piece of French-colonial history, which was awarded the European Literature Prize and the International Booker Prize, among others.

Also, his well-received new novel, Journey without return, or the hidden cahiers of Michel Adanson is an important book about a not-so-pretty part of French colonial history: slavery.

It begins with the brilliant death scene of the protagonist, botanist Michel Adanson, in the year 1806. His calcified joints are "twisted like vines" and his organs are slowly giving up. The internal creaking sounds his dying body makes remind him of a forest fire he once lit in Senegal, where he was staying to research African flora.

Writer David Diop ©Fugaces/Alice Joulot

After Michel's death, his daughter Aglaé finds his diaries, in which he tells her about that journey, which gave a decisive turn to his life. So decisive, in fact, that he was never able to build a good relationship with Aglaé.

Discoveries in the bush

At its 23e Michel Adanson leaves for the island of Saint-Louis hoping to discover plants there to establish his name as a botanist. But he also discovers something else there, namely that French commanders are selling hundreds of African people as slaves to America. When he hears of Maram, an enslaved young woman who is said to have returned from that 'journey without return', he becomes intrigued and starts looking for her.

Maram, a healer dressed in the skin of a huge snake, turns out to be an extraordinary and also a very beautiful woman. Michel falls hopelessly in love with her. A love that has no future, as she is, after all, a black African and he a white European. His arrival sets a catastrophe in motion. 'I was her Orpheus, she was my Euridyce.' As in the famous myth, Adanson irrevocably loses his beloved to death.

Whether this tragic love story really took place in the life of historical person Michel Adanson or not, Diop powerfully introduces his characters. A compelling story with a surprising catch at the end.

Good to know Good to know

David Diop, Journey without return. Translated by Martine Woudt, 256 p.
Cossee, €24.99






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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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