An African in Greenland

Tété-Michel Kpomassie was born in Togo. The first few chapters of his memoir, An African in Greenland, are spent establishing the everyday African life of his boyhood: palm trees, steamy heat, spicy food, catching lizards, snake worship, and the family structure in which his father was head of the clan but his father’s five wives all had a say in family matters. (I was strongly reminded of Camara Laye’s Enfant noir, which takes place in nearby French Guinea.)

Everything changes, however, when young Michel runs across a book about the Inuit people of Greenland. He instantly decides that he must visit this impossibly far-off, impossibly different land — with no trees! with no snakes! how can such things be? — and that nothing, least of all his own youth and impoverishment, will stop him.

It takes Kpomassie more than eight years to work his passage across Africa, through France and Germany and Denmark, and up to Greenland. He receives some stunning hospitality along the way — people who hear his desire to see the frozen north and simply allow him to move into their homes for periods of years — and also some suspicion. One commissioner at Copenhagen feels the need to spell out the precise difference in temperature between Togo and Greenland. But he finally arrives.

It is here that the book becomes a little peculiar. Kpomassie seems to think of himself as an ethnologist, though as far as I can tell he has no training at all. (To be fair, nor did many of the explorers who gave us very fine accounts of their travels during the 19th century.) The book, therefore, is an odd and endearing mixture of careful observation and personal reaction. It’s culturally layered, too: Kpomassie comes from Africa, but he comes by way of years in France, and he knows his primary audience will be French. When his reactions come from his own African background, then, he foregrounds them as exotic in themselves. Twice the foreignness for your money!

A good example of this is Kpomassie’s visit to a home for the elderly. He looks at the handicrafts they make, some of the only examples of authentic Greenlander culture that he sees the entire time he is in Greenland. He spends time listening to their stories. Finally, he makes an extended comparison between the way the elderly are treated in Greenlander culture and the way they are treated in Togolese culture:

On the other hand, an old Greenlander will seldom contradict one of his own family. Here, the father neither scolds nor punishes a child, whereas in Togo he derives such authority from the respect due to age — a passive, abject, uncomplaining submission — and from the deep-seated belief that the old wield secret powers for good or for ill, that not only families but even political regimes depend upon them and upon the traditional chiefdoms. I cannot imagine our Togolese patriarchs ever agreeing to end their reign in old people’s homes.

Kpomassie experiences modern Greenlander culture, from the top to the bottom. He lives with ordinary people both wealthy and extremely poor. While he makes no explicit judgments about the societal divisions between the Danes and the Greenlanders, he does make several comments about the disappearing native Greenlander culture, and thoroughly enjoys what of it he sees: food, clothing, traditional fishing techniques, and all. After a year spent there, he feels at home, and only convinces himself to leave so that he can tell others about this land he’s learned to love.

This book is a little tricky. On the one hand, Kpomassie looks like he’s being objective, with his detailed descriptions of native dress and customs. On the other, his very subjective responses to the treatment of dogs, the taste of seal blubber, and the behavior of unruly children sprinkle the book. I don’t look for objectivity in my travel memoirs — far from it! Otherwise I’d never be able to enjoy most of the ones I read. I just mean to point out some of the odd narrative tricks in this one, that make it stand out from the crowd.

I read a very bumpy translation from the French by James Kirkup. Some of the translation seemed to go all right, and then I’d read a bit and think, “That’s much too literal; I’m quite sure that’s not what he meant.” There doesn’t seem to be more than one translation out there, however, so if this interests you — and it should — I’d risk the Kirkup. Try the New York Review Book edition, which has an introduction by A. Alvarez. The one I read had an extremely patronizing introduction by Jean Malaurie, implying that Kpomassie stands for Dark Africa and that the Greenlanders stand for All Eskimos; I don’t recommend it. The book, however, I do recommend as engaging and interesting and a worthwhile read.

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9 Responses to An African in Greenland

  1. Bani Amor says:

    Just finished reading this as well. Super interesting travel narrative, of course I would have liked to hear more from him about the time he spent working his way up to Greenland, saving up money in factories and embassies and the like, but that’s just me. I thought the most interesting part was the way he reacted to the polyamory in Greenland. And the fact that there’s always a hint of disappointment in travel narratives when the foreigner doesn’t see the ‘authenticity’ in the place they expected to see.

    • Jenny says:

      I agree that I would have loved to hear more about those eight formative years he spent working his way to Greenland, especially his years in France. I felt that those years would have been revealing, culturally speaking, especially since the book was written in French and for a French audience.

  2. Pingback: An African in Greenland | Shelf Love | Metaglossia

  3. At the time that I went to Greenland myself (ages ago), this book was only available in a large print edition. I ordered it nevertheless and was absolutely charmed by it. There is something so ingenuous and so original about this travelogue that I couldn’t help loving it. It’s lovely that you are pulling it into the limelight a little more with your review (which, by the way, is excellent – as usual).

    • Jenny says:

      Ingenuous is a good word for it! The shifts in tone are quite endearing, from the “scientific” to the very personal. I enjoyed it very much.

  4. aartichapati says:

    I read this book for the Spotlight series on NYRB. I don’t remember being bothered by the translation, but I did think it was a little odd. I felt bad for/couldn’t help laughing slightly at Kpomassie’s troubles in love! It seemed to color his entire experience to the extent that he didn’t think Eskimos formed deep attachments.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes — and for someone who was calling himself an ethnologist, that was one thing he didn’t bother to analyze! He just plumed himself on his conquests and got ticked off when they didn’t work out. It was both funny and odd. Such an interesting book, all around.

  5. biblioglobal says:

    I saw this book on the library shelves and have been planning to read it for Togo in my book-from-every-country project. Do you recommend Enfant Noir for Guinea?

  6. Iris says:

    I have this on my TBR pile. Luckily in the NYRB version, that other introduction sounds horrible! It sounds like a difficult book in parts, but perhaps that is exactly what makes it interesting and stand out from the crowd as you say.

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