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The Belly of the Atlantic, by Fatou Diome, trans Ros Schwartz & Lulu Norman

Drowning dreams of goals and glory

Madické lives on the Senegalese island of Niodior, where life goes by on a traditional basis. He hero-worships Italian football star Paolo Maldini, whose progress through the European championship of 2000 he follows on the one television that works. The television's owner, nicknamed Barbès, fuels Madické's dreams of becoming a football success in France with tales of a land of plenty, where "even the ones picking up dog mess on the streets" are wealthy. Barbès, however, is a poor braggart, his own experience of France nothing but a series of humiliations at the hands of racist employers.

On Niodior, though, Barbès enjoys more authority than Ndetaré, the local teacher. Marxist Ndetaré can't seem to convince Madické, nor his sports-mad pals, that most African footballers are human bone and meal ground up in the cogs of cynical European business interests. This he illustrates with the tale of Moussa, a talent whose football dreams go sour in a French club, where he is the victim of locker-room racist jibes. Callously dropped, he returns home penniless and drowns himself, unable to endure the bewilderment and scorn of his family.

Ndetaré can't puncture Madické's enthusiasm, but he has an ally in Salie, Madické's sister and the narrator of Fatou Diome's novel. Writer Salie, exiled in Strasbourg, will offer her brother a large sum of money, but only if he forgoes football success and opens a shop on Niodior.

The Belly of the Atlantic isn't only immigrant despair. Exiled to Niodior for his politics, Ndetaré finds love with the beautiful Sankèle. But as Sankèle's father has promised her to the supposedly successful Barbès, the covert affair brings shame on the family, and her love child is drowned in a plastic bag.

Elsewhere, Diome takes up African issues such as the pillage of the continent at the hands of the World Bank and other institutions, but she is more angry about the way that backward Islamic patriarchy controls mores and hampers personal development. African fertility is a problem, too. When Ndetaré, blaming underdevelopment on too many children, says, "even the Pill will have to be introduced in genetically modified rice", it comes across as only half a joke.

Some might contend that the humblest lives can't turn Africa's problems around, and that to risk all for a better life abroad among strangers, win or lose, has something noble to it. But Diome seems to argue that only intellectuals like Salie should take the risk. This didactic novel is entertaining, though, because her writing has undeniable power and wit, well served by the translators Roz Schwartz and Lulu Norman.

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