I first encountered Tété-Michel Kpomassie in a tent on top of the Greenland ice cap. The temperature was minus 30, and I had burrowed into my sleeping bag to read in the small pool of light cast by a miner’s lamp strapped to my forehead. Every so often, like a soft-shelled crab, I poked my head from the bag to take a gulp of air. The tent was brightly lit by the midnight sun, the shimmering sky outside the plastic pane the fabled Arctic blue. But it was impossible to read without being sealed into the bag. One’s fingers froze, otherwise, while turning the pages.
Night-time in the polar latitudes provides a robust test of a book’s capacity to take one’s mind off the horror of the moment (surely one of the functions of literature). Going to bed in the far north or south is not only like retiring to a deep freeze. It is also like taking a nap in a cutlery drawer, as one is obliged to cuddle all one’s battery-charged devices to prevent the cold sucking the cells dry.
From the first page, Kpomassie revealed himself as the man for the job. His superb volume An African in Greenland not only drove out the cold. It did what I most like a travel book to do. It held up a mirror, and the Arctic reflected back the world. The naked portrait of an exotic society – long gone, now – enabled me to understand the flaws (and a few benefits) of my own overdeveloped and overheated niche.
An African in Greenland was first published in Paris in 1983, a period in which Lévi-Strauss and exotic ethnology had captured the imagination of French intellectuals. In Kpomassie’s book they got two for the price of one, for the first chapters deal with the author’s childhood in rural Togo. It was a long journey from Togo to the Arctic Circle.
The author records how, as a small boy, he fell out of a tree while gathering coconuts and, following a purification ceremony by the High Priestess of the Python, was destined to be initiated into her cult
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