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.
(More on Buried In Print, if you're still interested; Dirty Feet was the first novel I read in 2012 that I needed to re-read immediately upon finishing it for the first time, so yes, I have more to say)
*Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010): 16
**Maya Jaggi, “The Voice of the Maghreb” (The Guardian: May 6, 2006)