Snapshots of western Africa, taken from the journal of an Italian writer on tour.
The opening of Celati’s travelogue sets the tone: “Yesterday, arriving at the airport in Bamako, at 2:30 in the morning, I stopped understanding what was happening.” Accompanying a filmmaker who was trying to produce a documentary on African medicine, Celati is the consummate hanger-on, blending the facts of his trip with lackadaisical observations. He’s an unapologetic tourist, a refreshing but sometimes enervating stance that leaves him free to breezily describe his surroundings—the rough architecture and cagey African townspeople, for instance—but can be chilling when applied with the same insouciance to an account of ten-year-old prostitutes. The documentary film all but falls apart, and Celati spends much time lounging under trees writing in Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania, paying as much attention to himself as the world around him. He manages to befriend a woman in Senegal, and his ordinarily bemused attitude gives way to a vaguely sexual tone; for the first time, we find him treating a native African like a regular person. The woman works at a law office and lives a social life that reminds the author of the coming and goings of a piazza (with cousins, French in-laws, and the like), a picture that begins to render the woman familiar to him—perhaps too much so. She comes to resemble an Italian more than anything else—and the author seems, in fact, to be papering over her real personality with a superimposed one. Perhaps this rendering attests to the author’s ability to treat her as an equal. More likely it’s a sign of his cultural blindness. The short entries, which range from three to one per page, make for quick reading, but they also create a narrative that only scratches the surface of a rich experience. Celati clearly intends to write like a tourist, a nomad, ranging over subjects, but his strategy doesn’t necessarily work.
A disappointing account that insists on raising expectations, only to dash them at every opportunity.