I grabbed An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie from the fabulous New York travel bookstore, Idlewild, after my event with Stephen Elliott. I’d heard about the book for years as an incredible read for anybody who adores anthropology adventure stories. Yes!
Reissued by the New York Review of Books in 2001, and well translated from the French, it opens in Togo with Kpomassie attacked by a snake while throwing coconuts out of a tree. Not a bad set-up. Then to cure him of his concussion, his father makes him go to this weird python shaman, a doctor out of your worst nightmare. This is in the 1960s. Barely a teenager, Kpomassie resolves to run away from home but where? As A. Alvarez says in the introduction, it’s like a fairy tale. Kpomassie reads a book about Greenland and resolves to visit. He works his way out of Africa and across Europe, a journey that makes going to the moon sound like a trip on Amtrak. He’s obviously the ideal traveler, a charming, cheerful and willing polyglot, conversant in at least six unrelated languages by the end of the book. He writes about being only the second black man to visit Greenland. “I started on a voyage of discovery, only to find that it was I who was being discovered.”
Sled dogs attack him, women won’t leave him alone, and the eternal night yawns and yawns–there’s nothing romantic about it. His understanding of his own culture and others—the French as well as Greenland’s–is a novelist’s. Particularly endearing are his revelations about food and sex. He’s as reluctant to share his friend’s girl, as eat a breakfast of dried seal intestines with a side of blubber, but somehow he manages. “The bag held dried seal intestines cut up into sticks, which made them look like flat, wrinkled spaghetti. These seal intestines—our breakfast—were tough: it took a lot of chewing to munch them down to a sort of lumpy porridge that gave off a smell like ripe Munster cheese. They were especially prized when eaten with seal blubber, that yellowish, bloodshot fat which had turned my stomach on the day—now so long ago—of my arrival in Greenland, but which now seemed to me a choice side dish for dried meat and fish.” Now I understand my curiosity about sex but why do I adore reading about bad food?