‘Do people ever know their true reason for embarking on a long journey?’ Tété-Michel Kpomassie asks, just as he is setting out for home (où ça?) at the end of a year and a half in the Greenland of his dreams. He was 16 when he first left Togo for Europe; 24 when he reached Greenland, by way of Ghana, Senegal, France, Germany and the colonial power, Denmark; 38 when he wrote those words; 40 when they were published by Flammarion. Now he is 80, and apparently considering a return to Greenland, to write – if such delirious symmetry and stern purpose can be believed – the story of his boyhood in Togo.
‘With a heavy heart, I joined the other passengers below.’ The mystery, as often, is the return journey. We don’t understand why he woke up. The journey out – the dream – is amply, even elaborately accounted for. A mishap involving a fall, and possibly a poisonous snake bite, while climbing a palm tree to harvest some coconuts, leads to a supplicant visit to a jungle snake cult, and the suggestion that, once fully recovered, he may expect to be indentured to the cultists by his grateful father. During this anxious interval, the boy comes across a book in ‘one of Lomé’s modest bookstores, run by missionaries’, which he buys and reads that morning on the beach. The book is a work on Eskimos; it does something to him. No snakes, no coconuts, no witch doctors, no trees.
After this he is on a quest, with something of Gulliver’s Travels about it. You could break it into four parts: Togo, Africa, Europe, Greenland; or, Africa, Europe, the echt north and the disappointing south of Greenland (‘A land of grey landscapes without ice … Apart from two kayaks, there were no seal hunters left in Qaqortoq, not a single sledge, not a husky. And not one single igloo!’). It has something of Candide, with its intrepid hero practising fearless reverse ethnology. It has something of Kafka’s Amerika, with its love of the inconsequential, and its mixture of sweet reason and surprise. (‘It has only one leg, on which, we are warned, it can hop around with the greatest of ease and speed,’ he writes of a mythical bush creature.) And it has something, too, of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, only that here the Blacks don’t live on the Pole: they have to take a ship to get there. ‘I had started on a voyage of discovery, only to find that it was I who was being discovered,’ Kpomassie realises once he finally disembarks. ‘Michel le géant’ is what the (little, unless Danish) Greenlanders call him, with awe and affection.
Kpomassie is a writer of enviable and maybe indispensable amiability and serenity. He throws himself – just a kid! – on the mercy of embassies. He turns up on the doorstep of a senior French diplomat in Paris, armed only with a several-years-old letter of introduction. He secures a subsequent billet in Bonn by picking up the suitcases of a couple of ladies getting off the train with him. He is happy and perhaps even relieved to find people in Greenland falling over themselves to host him, often for weeks and months on end. With his gaze and his mind continually turned out and facing forward, he is up to every predicament he encounters; he has the mother wit, the equanimity and the self-confidence of the epic hero. He is rarely turned in on himself, hardly ever bored, homesick, hungry, cold. Everyone who writes about Michel the Giant comments on his charm; but it isn’t charm as veneer, as facilitating ooze or unguent, but charm that identifies and goes out to meet itself in others wherever it may be met with, which is wherever Michel goes. One might call it fair dealing or friendliness. Or else he’s the seventh son of a seventh son. The Ghanaian embassy in Dakar has ‘a charming Togolese girl at the reception desk’; newly arrived in the City of Lights, ‘I was enchanted’; Copenhagen is ‘charming’; on the ship to Greenland, ‘a charming Danish hostess woke up the passengers for breakfast’; ‘it was total enchantment’ (a visit to an old people’s home on his first day).
Once in Greenland, the blessings come thick and fast: the continual coffee, the buckets of homebrew, the social round-and-round, the wives and mothers who make his bed (and lie in it), who sew him sealskin kamiks for his feet and much-needed dogskin trousers from their own dogs. And the food: lashings of it – seal, whale, guillemot, dog – starting with the initial trial by ordeal: ‘So I ate my portion of whale skin, and my hospitable hostess asked me if I like mattak. Fear of disappointing her made me reply, “Oh, yes!” Whereupon she gave me, all to myself, a whole plateful of the stuff, to which she added an enormous quantity of yellowish, blood-tinged seal blubber.’ Then on to a child’s birthday party with ‘roast seal cut into succulent slices’, and the tenderly boastful, valedictory, almost nostalgic ‘I thought nothing of eating a breakfast of seal fat and dried intestines every morning.’
Yes, one thinks, our man has an iron digestion, but he has an iron mind as well. He explicates seasons, customs, work, accommodation, morals. He seems to notice everything, and then to seek a reason it might be so. He has an eye for absurdity – often European absurdity. A tangle of snakes ‘like a mountain of spaghetti’, a breakfast scene ‘worthy of a Brueghel’. He reconstructs – or has never forgotten – his first glimpse of Paris:
On both sides of the street, a busy crowd walked up and down the pavements. Others were crossing the street in both directions, some of them almost running. The men all wore grey suits, without any bright colours. They were walking fast and seemed on edge. The women had their hair dyed all kinds of colours. In the general hustle and bustle, they walked along with their shoulders hunched forward, looking up only to flash a stealthy sideways glance from time to time. I couldn’t see any with the supple, noble walk or majestic bearing of our African women. Doubtless the pressure of Parisian life forced them into that nervous, jerky way of walking.
In Denmark he survives by working in ‘a big restaurant near the City Hall which specialised in French cuisine … My job at the Frascati consisted of nothing but washing large beer glasses.’ Kpomassie evidently enjoys the muddle of tastes and pretensions. One can hear him thinking: why can’t these supposed sophisticates get their story straight? (The translation, by the way, perhaps appositely, is by the late James Kirkup, a British expatriate poet who is best known for his work from the Japanese and who died in Andorra.)
Kpomassie stays with people up and down the social scale. He gives gorgeous descriptions of lengthening days, shortening days, the Northern Lights – these frighten him at first, which seems right. Sometimes he is stopped on the street by a stranger and plied with liquor: ‘“Hell, the poor black man – he’ll be frozen stiff!” He offered me akvavit, and the two of us drank it from the bottle on the street.’ He comes in for racial abuse just once, from a village headman, a Dane by the name of Dorf (‘village’). There are hard and impressive pages on the dogs that provide transport, clothing, food – and that prey on humans when they get a chance, a harsh arrangement that finds acceptance on all sides (‘when a human being falls prey to a pack of dogs, it is the Greenland custom to bury an empty coffin’). The dogs are shot and skinned and eaten. Their bones make toys for the children. He takes us ice-fishing, seal-hunting, sledge-riding, in the dark, across a trackless ice desert. He visits Greenland’s single prison (a day-release establishment) and tells us there are no banks. He gives us the rundown on the amenities of Godthåb, the capital city:
Eleven shops and stores, a sausage-seller’s van like those in the streets of Copenhagen, two churches, two hospitals, one of them the imposing Dronning Ingrids Sanatorium (Queen Ingrid’s Sanatorium), four ‘café-bars’, a radio station, a fire station, a soccer pitch, three kindergartens, two schools, one high school, a girls’ boarding school, a municipal library, and a hotel, together with 644 houses, made up a town which then had nearly five thousand inhabitants.
When he leaves, after two summers and a winter, having renewed his visa five times, it is again by boat. ‘Even though on every sea voyage I make, however short, I suffer from seasickness, a long boat trip is the form of travel I like best,’ he writes. ‘That inner psychological war with the elements which one feels one is waging at sea provides me with a good cure for the indefinable sense of anxiety, or the powerful sexual drive, that the lone foreign traveller often develops so intensely in the idleness of Greenland villages.’ That would be tristes arctiques, I suppose.