“The Door to the Voyage of No Return”: David Diop revives the Enlightenment and reopens the wounds of slavery

“The Door of the No Return Journey”, by David Diop, Seuil, 256 p., € 19, digital € 14.

The magnificent success of Soul brother (Seuil, 2018), which traces the fate of a Senegalese rifleman during the First World War, would almost make you forget that David Diop was first and foremost a specialist in the Age of Enlightenment. Lecturer at the University of Pau, the winner of the Goncourt des lycéens 2018 and the first French writer to be distinguished, in the United Kingdom, by the International Booker Prize 2021, devotes his research to the literature of the 18th century.e century. And it is to meet his activities as a teacher, researcher and novelist that we must The Gate of the No Return Journey.

In this new novel, the writer imagines a secret part of the life of the botanist Michel Adanson (1727-1806), to whom he has also devoted, for sixteen years, a good part of his university work. “From my first reading of the Travel to Senegal [1757], the scientist’s account of his stay in Africa, I was very seduced and moved by the text, he said to the “World of Books”. I, who spent part of my youth in this country, found familiar realities there, three centuries apart, but loaded with historical depth and a feeling of disturbing fictional strangeness. “ If his first instinct is to organize a conference on Adanson and set up a research group on European representations of Africa, David Diop retains the intuition of this discovery that the writer-traveler opens up romantic perspectives for him. That there is, for him, in the interstices of this precious document, material for reverie.

As a scientist and as a man of the Enlightenment

the “Coup de grace”, he says smiling, is given by his meeting with a Senegalese student who came to work for a while at his university. The young researcher informs him of the existence of a manuscript gathering the drafts of the Travel to Senegal, where Michel Adanson brings together everything that catches his attention, on a daily basis. “What I sensed in the text, still marvels today David Diop, is largely overwhelmed by what we read in these drafts. Michel Adanson shows real affinities with the country, rare for a man of his time. And, above all, an extraordinary ability to go beyond his own prejudices and those of his time. “ As a scientist and a man of the Enlightenment, Adanson observes the world around him and draws the necessary conclusions, even when they go against the ideas commonly accepted by his compatriots. He is learning Wolof, in order to be able to access first-hand information on the plants he identifies. He collects and translates the tales that allow him to understand the way of thinking of the inhabitants of Senegal, and notes: “There is a lot to fall back on what they say about the ignorance of negroes. “

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“The Door to the Voyage of No Return”: David Diop revives the Enlightenment and reopens the wounds of slavery