“You came into the world with your feet first, your feet in the water, your face covered with a bloody membrane. The canoe your mother had climbed into to look for the midwife, in her white hospital on the other bank, was taking on water. Not dangerously, no, but enough to cool the ankles of the parturient, twisted in pain, silent by decree, while the river, little by little, soon drowned her blue rubber sandals. »

The first pages of Mano de l’autre bord, the third work by Nigerian writer Antoinette Tidjani Alou, immediately impose their particular atmosphere. The man who speaks is the boatman, unexpected midwife to the woman in distress, and his words are addressed to Mano, the child he had helped to give birth. Having since become a man and gone to live abroad, the latter returned home, deeply bruised and destabilized. What happened to him ? What hidden sorrows or tragedies must he recover from?

Although editorially presented as a novel, Mano de l’autre bord evokes other literary forms as the atmosphere, the lyricism of the writing and even the graphic composition of the text, where short paragraphs multiply, strike the drive. Tale? Legend ? Poetic sequel? Novel today?

The book covers all of these genres at once. You have to flow into it with confidence, let yourself be won over by its timeless charm. No plot here or resolution, but voices which follow one another to retrace Mano’s journey and help him through words to get better. Thus, through the mouth of the canoeist, a story of origins begins, to the rhythm of the boat speeding down the river and the momentum of this newborn eager to come into the world. The man who also calls himself a “fisherman, healer, builder” and a fine connoisseur of the art of divination, recalls the exceptional nature of this birth, at the bottom of the hold on the river.

Left as a prodigal son

Thus the scene is symbolically set for a life which will be built between two shores: on one side that of the traditional rural world and the family environment, on the other that of the tempo of the city, its attractions and its risks . “No, you were not born from anywhere; you were born in my boat (…). Discharged from the water, you grew like a tree planted by a stream. You ate the fruits of the clay earth and, absorbing their strength, you sprang forward, thick and strong. »

The story of Mairam, Mano’s mother, makes up a second part of the book. She in turn recounts the unrivaled importance of this son, the first male child following four deceased boys. To break the spell that has befallen his genealogy, Mairam invents unprecedented protection rituals for this only child, daring to distance himself from the community even if it means suffering the opprobrium: “Two quarantines during I looked after you alone, alone , refusing to let custom take its course. They thought I was crazy, the worst of perditions. Your father passed me what he took to be the whims of a lost woman and the hamlet raved about it until it was exhausted. »

But the idolized child ends up growing up and must one day go to school, especially since he proves particularly gifted there. In turn traditionally educated by the canoeist, then trained at the French school, Mano gradually moves away from his family to join other worlds, moving from the hamlet to the city, then from Niamey to Bordeaux in France. It is he who then tells his story, remembering the learnings and the encounters which supported his path.

This last part, written in a more current but also more disconcerting tone, without the momentum of the griotic declamations of the first two thirds of the book, presents us with a hero who was defeated by the test of distance, even though he had left as a son. prodigal: “You came into the world surrounded by signs. Your destiny is blossoming. You would go far. (…) We should have protected you better. Geniuses, men, yourself. »

Single father, adoption sponsors, emotional deprivation…

We see him discovering student life in Bordeaux, but also learning the feeling of love which enchants him to the point of passion then disarms him. These different experiences reveal his sensitivity and end up making him vulnerable instead of making him stronger. Will his return to the family fold allow him to rebuild his life?

Single father, adoption sponsors, community, individualism, intellectual development, emotional deprivation… Several themes are developed in Antoinette Tidjani Alou’s novel. Mano, for his part, undoubtedly embodies more than any other that of crossbreeding, presented by the author not as a wealth but as the difficult experience of mixing all worlds within oneself. Mano goes, lives and returns, following his own route as best he can, as you follow the current of a river at the risk of it carrying you away.

After a first book of autobiographical inspiration, On m’appelle Nina, then a collection of short stories, Tina shot me between the eyes, both published by Amalion (Senegal), Antoinette Tidjani Alou opens a new, singular and original literary path. Mano de l’autre bord is one of the works in the running for the Ivory Prize, which will be awarded in November 2023.