House of Anansi, 2011

Edem Awumey’s Dirty Feet is a slim volume, but its contents are hefty indeed.

Askia’s story reminds the reader that one is wise not to judge insides by outsides, that the dimensions of an individual’s inner life expand even beyond personal experiences, that one can spend a lifetime trying to understand only a single self.

What the outside of this second novel does reveal, however, is that the tale will be told from ground-level, including what lies in darkness. Alysia Shewchuk’s cover design includes an image of the Eiffel Tower that is almost unrecognizable; this is an unfamiliar Paris, a city with an underbelly.

The upper reaches of the tower look like some other landmark, its broadening middle skulking in a dusty banner that matches the darker edges of the night-time photograph, its familiar outline recognizable only with effort. But this is the Paris that Askia knows. If he can be said to know a city. If he can be said to know any place.

His father moved to the music of exile, his mother told him, and Askia’s earliest memory is of his father leading him from Nioro du Sahel on a donkey, with his mother balancing a basket of provisions on her head and walking behind. “For a long time we were on the road, my son. And wherever we went, people called us Dirty Feet.”

Askia has continued living on the road; he travels to Paris, a city in which his father had once expressed an interest as well. He finds meaning in the stories of other boys searching for their fathers (like Juan Preciado in Pedro Páramo’s novel) and in mythology and history (like the tales of Ulysses, a long-time wanderer who was considered a hero by some and the antithesis by others).

He fills his time by driving a taxi, with a bogus licence. He is always on the move, and he carries with him, not only his memories of his father, but memories of other places that resonate with him. As Edwidge Danticat writes in Create Dangerously, the “nomad or immigrant who learns something rightly must always ponder travel and movement, just as the grief-stricken must inevitably ponder death”.*

Askia’s search for his father, however, parallels a much broader search. There are many others like him in Paris, whose fathers are not missing, who also are seeking: “the pilgrims, the runaways, the curious, the unsatisfied, all the souls fated to spin their wheels in the direction of infinity”.

He chooses to frequent places to which he thinks his father would be drawn. He looks for him in many places and believes that he sees him in a photograph in a book, which is actually an image of Askia Mohammed, king of the Songhi Empire five centuries ago. Edem Awumey’s narrator is looking behind him, not only to his own younger years, but to his father’s life, and beyond, to another time, perhaps historical or perhaps imagined.

Askia’s situation is not unusual. As the narrator of Edem Awumey’s novel, he is a character, but the challenges he faces are drawn from life. The Moroccan novelist, Tahar Ben Jelloun, who has lived in Paris since 1971, also writes about Africa’s dispossessed: “Emigration is no longer a solution; it’s a defeat. People are risking death, drowning every day, but they’re knocking on doors that are not open.”**

The pages of Dirty Feet do, in fact, contain all of this: defeat and death and drowning and closed doors. Some of this is overt in the author’s creation, but it permeates the text more subtly as well.

The night engulfs an outdoor exhibit of photographs of people walking in various seasons, furniture is draped with an ash coloured sheet, a crippled hand raised above a man’s head is mistaken for a knife, walls are sooty and damp, a casket lurks in the shadow of pillars in a cellar: darkness seeps into the crevices of Askia’s story.

Individually, these images and sensory details appear innocuous, but cumulatively they contribute to a narrative constructed with intelligence and sensitivity from the first to the final page.

The intricacy is not immediately recognizable (like that image of the tower), but the crafting is relentless. (This is why Dirty Feet is the first novel of 2012 that I needed to re-read immediately upon finishing it for the first time.)

Something, for instance, which Askia sees on his route in the first chapter leads him to make a brief reference to a childhood memory. This could have been a fleeting detail, the kind of thing that a taxi driver must register a hundred times in a given work-day, but this image – this recollection – is gradually layered as the narrative evolves. As the reader learns more about Askia’s relationship to this sighting – to this memory – it comes to represent the way in which atrocities committed in the past thrive as memories in the seemingly innocuous present.

The lines – between what has substance and what is ethereal, between what is creative and what is destructive, between coming and going, between journeying and wandering – are blurred. One fire is warming in a studio fireplace, but another is raging in a warehouse and consuming walls covered with frescoes. The sky holds ribbons of clouds that look like roadways, and Petite-Guinée (who was a mercenary in Africa and now is an old man who owns a bar in Montmartre) tries to paint roadways on canvas, but he cannot draw whole shapes, only rubble.

Also blurred is the reader’s understanding of Askia. Neither the language nor the structure, neither his recollections nor the company he keeps: nothing endears this character to the reader, for whom there is no welcome, neither in Askia’s squat nor in his cab, certainly not in his memories of the past, as these begin to take shape.

Nonetheless, there is something to be unearthed, a question that seeks an answer. This is similar to the process described by the Libyan author, Hisham Matar, whose second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, draws upon his personal experience of having had a father who disappeared at the hands of a tyrannical political regime.

When challenged about a scene in his own first novel, which disturbed many of his readers, Matar states that “…not everybody does horrible things and stops and thinks about them in the way that we expect them to think about them. I think most people, I would wager, do horrible things and go about quietly enduring their act.”

Matar believes that when “a particular political system is weighing heavily…people do terrible things” and perhaps sometimes “in suffering people do some incredibly…wonderful things” but “that happens rarely and when it does it’s moving and beautiful to witness, but, more times than not, perfectly fine, wonderful, generous, kind people do terrible things…are driven to betray.” °

What events lead to such betrayals, what kind of suffering is inflicted and then endured, into what sort of shape does the weight of such a system transform a man: these are also the kinds of questions that the character of Askia provokes in the reader of Edem Awumey’s Dirty Feet.

The novel’s complexity lies in its layering, its attention-to-detail, rather than its use of language. Lazer Lederhendler’s translation suggests a text with straight-forward prose, which suits the intensity that lurks beneath.

To translate the work, Lederhendler did, indeed, visit Paris, as he described at the Toronto International Festival of Authors in October 2011. He chose to travel there in the winter, when there were very few tourists, and he discovered a side of the city that was more grim than he had experienced before, which he likes to think has benefitted the translation of the work that was done there.

The occasional image does stand out, like talk of the “gas raging through the slit throats of the old building’s pipes” and the sea as a “smooth, ironed, tranquil bed”. But the sentence structure is simple. Figurative language is employed with a light touch. Even the typeface and layout is clean with generous margins. All of this keeps the weight of the story in its content and crafting.

And a weighty story it is. Nuruddin Farah, a Somalian author living in exile, describes the refugee, whether in fiction or in life, as a “miserable creature whom nobody wants”, who receives no love and no affection; he, himself, is a refugee technically, but he has been offered six passports from six countries, so he does not believe himself to be a true refugee.°°

Whether Askia would fit Farah’s definition of a true refugee is left to the reader to decide. In deciding, the reader will spend time with him, in his memories, in the underbelly of Paris, immersed in the darkness. The story is not all darkness, however.

As one character states: “‘I enjoy portraits of black people,’ she said. ‘They have a way of capturing and holding the light.’” Dirty Feet does hold the light, in offering a glimpse of something-like-understanding, but beyond that, the brilliance of Edem Awumey’s deftly constructed and executed work is something to behold indeed.

*Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010): 16

**Maya Jaggi, “The Voice of the Maghreb” (The Guardian: May 6, 2006)

°Hisham Matar, Interviewed by Harriet Gilbert, BBC World Service: September 3, 2011

°°Nuruddin Farah, Interviewed by Lewis DeSoto, IFOA October 30, 2011

Available from House of Anansi