Book Review

David Diop: A Naturalist Searching for Eurydice

Following on from At Night All Blood Is Black, his first novel about the African Tirailleurs during World War I, the French writer explores the transatlantic slave trade in Beyond the Door of No Return, a finalist for the National Book Award. Setting the story in 18th-century Senegal, he portrays a fictional encounter between French naturalist and historical figure Michel Adanson and a young female slave on the run.
© Eric Traversié

A modest dead-end street in the neighborhood around the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris is named after Michel Adanson (1727-1806), a naturalist who lived during the Age of Enlightenment. Trained by Réaumur and Jussieu, whose classes he attended at the Jardin du Roi medical garden, he devoted his life to studying plants, shellfish, and animals. In December 1748, at his own expense, he embarked on a five-year expedition to Senegal, which was then a French colony. He returned impoverished, changed, and having written a book, Histoire naturelle du Sénégal : Coquillages, in which he developed an original classification system different from those created by botanists Buffon and Linnaeus.

David Diop, a novelist, teacher, and scholar specializing in 18th-century literature, has made this trip, about which very little is actually known, the cornerstone of his second novel, Beyond the Door of No Return. Imagining that a dying Adanson passed a secret collection of notebooks to his only daughter, he reveals the story of a journey to the depths of hell, all written in the first person. This odyssey comes to an end in front of Dakar on the island of Gorée, a hub of the slave trade and a departure point for boats sailing to the Americas. The naturalist, who spent years on his major, unfinished work, L’Orbe universel, is said to have been deeply affected by an encounter with Maram Beck, a young slave warrior with healing powers, who was killed while trying to escape her masters.

Interweaving several narratives, David Diop paints a portrait of a man of his time, convinced of Europe’s superiority over Africa despite his own successive awakenings. Like Orpheus descending into the underworld, Adanson is unable to save his Eurydice, who is swallowed by the waters of the Atlantic. Readers will immediately recognize David Diop’s trademark talent for conjuring up images and bringing history and fiction together in this second book. He leaves the last word to a Black woman, a slave freed but not free, so that the story is not once again appropriated by colonists and their descendants.

Beyond the Door of No Return by David Diop, translated from French by Sam Taylor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023. 256 pages, 27 dollars.

Article published in the December 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.