His novels about Nigeria and West Africa affords the French author, Pierre Cherruau, the opportunity to write more expansively (than newspaper articles would have permitted him to do) about subjects that interest him, he tells Okechukwu Uwaezuoke.
It was possible that Pierre Cherruau was already used to being asked one particular question. The question? If there was anything autobiographical about his first novel, Nena Rastaquouere. Or even about any of his other novels based on Nigeria and West Africa. At least, that was the case weeks ago in Port Harcourt at one of the events heralding the Port Harcourt World Book Capital. He was one of the two Francophone authors featured at interactive session in a Hotel Presidential hall brimming over with the local literati. The other author was a Beninese author, Florent Couao-Zotti.
A quick cut to the present. He was sitting behind a glass-topped desk in his office. “It would be too facile to recopy reality,” he argued.
So, the lead character – or any of the characters – doesn’t have to be like him or like a character he likes. In Nena Rastaquouere, the lead character Jean Charon lived in Owerri, where he worked as the Alliance Française Director. Cherruau had performed the same duties in Enugu. There, the similarities end.
“My novels were never autobiographical,” he continued. “I always considered myself a journalist even when I write novels. It never interested me to speak about myself. I let others speak for themselves.”
Discerning readers would be amused by the clichéd comments of the novel’s European characters about Nigeria or Nigerians. “I think it’s important to understand what goes on in the mind of others. Sometimes in my novels, you’d find a foreigner who expresses his stereotypical ideas about a Senegalese or a Nigerian. It doesn’t mean I share these ideas. For me, it’s about trying to delve into the imagination of others and their worldviews.”
Cherruau thinks this holds the key to unravelling the mystery as to why young Africans would readily risk their lives in boats just to get to Europe. “Their imagination is of a Europe that doesn’t really exist, but it’s important. You cannot understand the world, if you do not understand what goes on in the mind of others.”
Writing novels, the French man explained, affords him the opportunity to publish on any subject of his choice in a more expansive way. Newspaper articles, realised, are usually restricted by their length and subjects. A typical Western editor would often prefer negative news about Africa. “Nena Rastaqouere was written as a detective novel because that was a way to get a wide French readership interested in Nigeria. But its real theme is the African woman’s strength of character. The character, Nena, spoke several languages, and ran a small business outfit even as she raised her children as a single mother.”
Also, the fact that the novel was based on the Abacha era makes it a tacit homage to the resilience of Nigerians even under harsh conditions.
The fact that he had written about cities in Nigeria in some of his detective novels meant that he had either lived in or visited them. “Some authors could write about the US, for instance, without necessarily having been there. They could have done enough research on the country and seen so much of it in films. But in the case of Nigeria, coming from France, there was almost nothing to base my imagination on. So, I was almost like a child in a strange new environment when I arrived in this country for the first time, 20 years ago.”
Flashback to sometime in 1994. He was boarding his Paris-bound flight, leaving this country behind. He had enjoyed his job at the Alliance Française in Enugu, not just because it afforded him the opportunity to meet the locals but also given inspiration for the manuscript of his first novel, Nena Rastaquouere, which was eventually published by Le Seuil in 1997. The same outfit would publish his second novel, Lagos 666, in 2000.
Cherruau’s next novel on Nigeria, Nok en Stock was published by L’Ecailler du Sud in 2004. That same year, he published a collection of interviews with African writers, titled D’Encre et D’Exils (Of Ink and Exiles), with the Editions Centre Pompidou. In 2006, he wrote Ballon Noir (Black Ball), which was published by L’Ecailler du Sud. Two other novels, based on his West African experience – Togo or Not Togo published by Baleine Seuil and Chien Fantôme (Ghost Dog) by Après la Lune – appeared in 2008. He published his only France-based novel, La Vacance du Petit Nicolas (Little Nicholas’s Holiday) with Baleine in 2011 and two years later, published Dakar-Paris: un Voyage à Petites Foulées (Dakar-Paris: a Journey of Little Strides) with Calmann-Levy. His yet-to-be-published novel , whose storyline was based on the years of the Biafran War, Le Noir N’est Pas une Couleur (Black Is Not a Colour) is currently with the publishers, Belfond, and appears by the end of the year.
Cherruau has his background to thank for his lustrous literary career. He was born on August 20, 1969 in the historical Flemish town of Dunkirk, close to the Belgian border. Because it was customary for French women in those days to wish to give birth in the midst of their own people, his mother (of French-Flemish stock) travelled from Paris to her roots in the north of France to give birth to him.
At age 3, he would leave Paris to Bordeaux, where he lived until he was 22. This was because his father, also called Pierre, was the South-western France’s correspondent of Le Monde for 35 years. His dad also worked for a weekly Bordeaux-based newspaper, Sud Ouest. “It is a big regional paper in southwest France with a circulation figure of 400000. I used to accompany my dad to the corporate headquarters of this newspaper. I also accompanied him when he was doing his reports.”
And his mum? “She was also a journalist. She worked for La Vie Economique, a business newspaper in Bordeaux and was also a food critic for a gastronomical newspaper, Gault & Millau (named after the two owners).”
Already as a secondary school boy at Bordeaux’s Lycée Camille Jullian, his writing skills had been honed by his literary activities. With just a sister (born in 1972) he had enough time to devote to his passion, publishing his first newspaper at age 11. The modestly-produced newspaper, Le Journal de Bordeaux, was photocopied and distributed and sold to people in the neighbourhood.
His dad, meanwhile, also ran his own newspaper, which specialised on horse races, called Le Cheval de l’Ouest.
Cherruau would later study concurrently at the Sciences-Po and the Université de Bordeaux, where he studied law. This was from 1988 to 1992. He also later enrolled for a DEA in history at the university while simultaneously studying at the University of Wolverhampton in the English Midlands . “This was where I discovered England,” he recalled. “At the university, I had a British girlfriend, whose parents lived in London. Then, we would travel almost every weekend to see her family.”
He later returned to France to enrol at the Centre de Formation des Journalistes, the best journalist school in France. Soon after his graduation in 1993, he travelled to Enugu to assume a post as the Alliance Française Director.
Two years after, it was “Open Sesame” to an enthralling world of new journalistic experiences. From working as Le Monde’s correspondent in Benin Republic, where he also stringed for other media houses (from 1995 to 1996), he participated at the launch of the weekly, L’Autre Afrique in 1997.
“This was an important period [of my life] because that was when my first novel, Nena Rastaquouere, made its appearance in Paris. After reading the novel, the Africa Bureau Chief of the Courrier International asked me to replace him at the newspaper since he was leaving. I worked for 14 years at Courrier.”
In 2011, soon he launched the African edition of slate.com in French, which he edited for three years. He would later move on to work briefly for the Radio France Internationale web site (RFI.FR), from where he got his present job at the French Consulate in Lagos.
Returning to Nigeria 20 years after, it struck him how much the country had changed. “Lagos, I believe, is more than ever the heart of Africa. Nigeria too.”