Dirty Feet, a brief, erudite novel by Edem Awumey, refracts centuries of forced African migrations through the life of a refugee in Paris. It fuses western mythology with French and African literary traditions; it entwines Islamic, Christian and African spirituality. It offers a wealth of allusions that tend to overwhelm the narrative, rather than enhance it.
Despite this shortcoming, Awumey’s spare style and stark vision disrupts our complacent vision of the world we know; he challenges our belief in the universal progress of race relations.
Awumey, born in Togo in 1975, now lives in Montreal. His first novel, Port-Melo, won the Grand prix litteraire d’Afrique noire.
In France, his second novel, Dirty Feet ( Les pieds sales) was short-listed for the Prix Goncourt. It tells the story of Askia Mohammed, who arrives in Paris from Africa in 2005. The bodyguard of an African diplomat, Askia seizes the opportunity to disappear into the City of Light. Four years later, he is a cab driver, living in a dilapidated room in an abandoned building; he cooks on a hotplate and washes with rusty water that dribbles into a broken sink.
He might never have left the slum on the Gulf of Guinea where his family landed after years spent roaming the desert. Epidemic and drought had forced them from their home. The desperate family trudged past village after village, the inhabitants offering them only scorn: Askia’s family – and others like them – became known as the “Dirty Feet,” a cursed people, doomed to a life wandering the road.
In the early 1970s, Askia’s father, Sidi Ben Sylla Mohammed, abandoned the family, ostensibly for Paris. Now, as Askia collects his fares, he searches for some sign of his missing father in the city streets. He likens himself to the son of Odysseus, “some obscure, obsessed Telemachus.”
In Paris, Askia’s friends are outsiders like himself, immigrants who gather on the plaza of the Centre de Pompidou. A number cite his uncanny resemblance to a man in a white turban. Both Askia and his father are said to look like Askia Mohammed the Great, who ruled Africa’s powerful Songhai Empire from 1492 to 1528. Awumey collapses time, rolling Askia, his father and the great African ruler into one.
Awumey sets Askia’s experience of exile and abandonment in a specific racial and historical context; he connects the dots between ancient African history and “the beginning of the mass insanity that cast people out on the road (slavery).” Slyly, obliquely, he advances the reader through the colonization of French Africa, the struggles of independence and on into the present day.
The story’s undercurrent of violence prickles the senses: Askia is still being sought by officials in the government he fled. He is constantly on alert for skinheads who viciously attack the city’s black immigrants.
Contrasting this tension is the pointlessness of his existence; his ennui as he drives the roads day and night with barely a home to call his own, seeking a father who might as well be a ghost. Askia’s alienation, rendered in Awumey’s subdued, elliptical tones, recalls Camus’s The Outsider, as does the title Dirty Feet, for Camus, an Algerian of European heritage, was known as a “pied noir.”
More significant are Awumey’s references to black and African classics such as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and his update of Yoruba myths as found in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.
Dirty Feet is rich in wisdom and allusion, but it falters at times. In a novel this short – 175 pages – it is difficult to overlook the sluggish passages. The dialogue often grates – an issue, perhaps, with translation. And then there is Awumey’s intemperance: He has enough ideas here for two or three separate novels. Of course, that’s the good news as well.
Donna Bailey Nurse is the author most recently of What’s a Black Critic to Do: II.