Book Review - Beyond the Door of No Return

The Senegalese-French novelist David Diop and his translator Anna Moschovakis won the 2021 International Booker prize for At Night All Blood Is Black, about west African soldiers in the first world war. Set in 18th-century Senegal, Beyond the Door of No Return, superbly translated by Sam Taylor, fictionalises the real-life French naturalist Michel Adanson’s brush with the slave trade.

In Diop’s narrative, Adanson leaves his notebooks for his daughter Aglaé to find after his death in 1806. They describe his travels through Senegal some 50 years earlier. A village chief tells the botanist about his niece, Maram, who had been sold into slavery. Remarkably, she’d escaped that “impossible land… where, for slaves, there is no return” and found refuge in the Cape Verde peninsula. His curiosity piqued, Adanson sets off to find Maram with his guide, 15-year-old Ndiak, who teaches him Wolof.

Through language, Adanson better understands the culture: “the historical monuments of the Senegalese can be found in their stories, their aphorisms, their tales transmitted from one generation to the next”. Reciting prayers before cutting down trees demonstrates a respect for nature, while “the fact that Black people did not build ships to sail to Europe so they could steal our land and enslave us seems to me proof… of their wisdom”. His journey ends on the island of Gorée, an outpost for the Atlantic slave trade, with its notorious Door of No Return.

A specialist in 18th-century literature, Diop recalls the fiction of the period with his focus on nature, exploration and epistolary format. Reflecting Senegal’s oral tradition, Adanson recounts what he hears from several characters, while our reading is filtered through Aglaé. There’s also a neat echo of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

A compelling critique of colonial violence and the dehumanisation of Black people, this book illustrates how inhabiting another language promotes compassion. Learning Wolof, Adanson observes, “you simultaneously absorb another conception of life, which is every bit the equal of your own”. Writing this account for Aglaé, Adanson reveals the better side of himself.

Originally published by The Observer