Taut tale of migrant lives

2009-06-03 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Belly of the Atlantic

Fatou Diome

Serpent’s Tail

FATOU Diome was in KwaZulu-Natal earlier this year when she was a participant at the Time of the Writer conference in Durban.

Most of the time she lives and works in Strasbourg where she teaches literature at the university, but she was born in Senegal, and this, her first novel, deals with the plight of African immigrants to Europe — specifically Senegalese who go to France.

They are on the horns of a dilemma; on the one hand they face poverty, loneliness, exploitation and racism in the land they have gone to for a better future; on the other, those back home have completely unrealistic expectations of them.

Living on the island of Niodior (Diome’s Senegalese home as well) is Madické, a football-mad teenager whose only wish is to escape to Europe and play as a professional for a big-league team.

He sees his French-based elder half-sister, Salie, as his ticket out and is deaf to the warnings of his teacher, who also taught Salie. Their stories are intertwined with those of others who have faced the realities of emigration, and reacted to it in different ways.

For some, the experiment will end in tragedy, for others there may be a measure of success, but one of the saddest things is that no one back home will either believe or understand the realities.

The Belly of the Atlantic is a short and compelling novel. It was a bestseller in France and it tells a powerful tale with humour and charm, and without turning it into a complaint about the unfairness of life. And so the characters elicit the sympathy of the readers.

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