Beyond the Door of No Return by David Diop (Translated from French by Sam Taylor) - review by Laurel Berger

Laurel Berger

Confessions of a Botanist

Beyond the Door of No Return

By

Pushkin Press 256pp £16.99
 

By the standards of his day, the 18th-century French botanist, naturalist, explorer, mapmaker, taxonomist, and early ethnologist Michel Adanson was hard work. His refusal to prune the dead wood from his 177-volume Universal Encyclopedia of Natural History doomed that enterprise, even before Diderot and D’Alembert’s concise Encyclopédie rendered it obsolete. His taxonomy system, meant to make him immortal, was quickly superseded by that of Carl Linnaeus (le petit Suédois, he called him). His rejection of Latin nomenclature in favour of Wolof to describe species collected during his five years in Senegal, his Africa-acquired habit of working in a squatting position and other perceived eccentricities kept him at the edges of the clubby Académie Royale des Sciences. Yet as a young botanist, he was the first European to describe Senegal’s plants, animals, marine life and minerals while simultaneously compiling detailed notes on its society – scientific contributions undervalued by his betters at the Senegal Concession, part of the Compagnie des Indes. He died in poverty in 1806.

In David Diop’s third novel, a frail, emotionally broken Adanson concedes that his intransigence and grandiose ambitions were ‘delusions, created by my mind to preserve me from a terrible suffering that began during my voyage to Senegal’. And the cause of that suffering was his calamitous attachment to

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