Can You Conquer Death By Depicting Your Life on Paper?

David Diop, author of "Beyond the Door of No Return," on colonialism, curiosity, and the weight of all-consuming passion

Botanical sketches of trees from around the world
Sketches towards a Hortus botanicus americanus via Wikimedia Commons

In the opening pages of David Diop’s Beyond the Door of No Return, Michel Adanson, a renowned botanist, is dying. He thinks about a bush fire he started on the banks of the Senegal River years before, and remembers the way the trees split open violently and creatures, in their attempts to flee, emitted sounds of terror. Having spent his life dedicated to the work of cataloguing the flora and fauna of Senegal on behalf of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, he wonders, maybe for the first time in his career, whether the “burning trees must have screamed curses in a secret plant language, inaudible to men.”

As he dies, he reckons with what will survive him. His botany records, his collections, his drawings, the work he neglected his family for, will be washed away. Incapable of sharing his interior life with his daughter, Aglaé, even as the end of his life approaches, he hides a series of notebooks in which he reveals his journey to find a woman named Maram, who had been sold into slavery but was rumored to have escaped. When his daughter discovers them, she learns about a great love—and loss—in her father’s life, one that he kept a secret. 

The novel, told from a series of different perspectives—Michel Adanson’s narration and his notebooks, Aglaé’s memory, Maram’s testimony—encourages readers to consider the power of story; reckon with discrepancies between oral histories and the written accounts of colonists that are later received as truths; and think deeply about the capacity for healing that the natural world contains, as well as the harms inflicted on the environment through colonialism. I corresponded with David Diop, who won the 2021 International Booker Prize award for his novel At Night All Blood Is Black, about these themes and more by email in an interview translated from the French by Jonathan Woollen. 

Jacqueline Alnes: One of the main figures in this story, Michel Adanson, is based on a real historical figure, a Frenchman who traveled to Senegal in order to study the flora and fauna. What did you learn from examining Adanson as a historical figure?

David Diop: Michel Adanson was one of the first French scholars to travel to Senegal. He went at age 22 and was there from 1749 to 1753 with orders from his masters, the Jussieu brothers, who were members of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris. His intent was to pioneer the description of flora and fauna, so that he could become a member of the Academy himself later on. He never reached his goal, which was to rigorously classify the three kingdoms of life in opposition to what was set down by the Swedish scientist Linnaeus. Nor did he ever publish his Natural History of Senegal, rough sketches of which can be found today in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Found among those sketches, as the Senegalese historian Ousmane Seydi has studied, is the first French-Wolof dictionary. Michel Adanson learned Wolof, a prevalent Senegalese language, because he had come to realize that the usual translators didn’t know how to translate the words of people, male and female, with knowledge of the Senegalese plants’ medicinal properties.

JA: In the novel, Adanson is a man obsessed with his amassed collection of specimens, so much so that he neglects his wife and child. The irony, at the end of his life, is that his encyclopedias are unfinished and unavailable to the public, and his daughter knows nearly nothing about him as a person. What intrigues you about his fervor for cataloging at the cost of so much else?

In real life, this illusion of control of our own destinies doesn’t exist.

DD: Michel Adanson’s A Voyage to Senegal was published in 1757, four years after he returned home. It’s the first volume in his endeavor to write a Natural History of Senegal. Natural history is a crucial piece of this encyclopedic dream of his to plant stakes around the world through description. Its many fields of knowledge include botany, geology, ornithology, ichthyology and conchology, astronomy, and even a form of proto-ethnology since the planet’s non-European societies are also being broached as objects of study. To name every plant, every animal, every society, is to seek mastery for Western man over nature and all its creations. The naming act is a corollary to the drive to subordinate nature to mankind: “To make oneself master and possessor of nature,” to take Descartes’s formulation, is above all to measure, to quantify, to classify.

Michel Adanson suggests that it was during his trip to Senegal that he conceived of his life’s project, of which the Natural History of Senegal was but a minor part, the project being a super-encyclopedia of life that would unite the three realms: mineral, vegetable, animal—the “Universal Orb.” The title of this mega-encyclopedia—for the sake of which Adanson attests to having described tens and tens of thousands of “existences,” to use his term—refers to the objective of circumscribing the world into a kind of totalizing circularity. It’s something that he’ll never achieve, though he tried to until the end of his life. As an old man, he’ll keep soliciting Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to finance the volumes of his Universal Orb. On the botanical level, his highly complex method posits the combination of a whole string of plant characteristics far more plentiful than what Linnaeus had proposed. But this method claiming to form a rational thesis about the world is called upon to renew itself every time an unheard-of plant or animal, unclassifiable under the old frameworks, emerges from some corner of the Amazon, Asia, or Africa. And that’s the tragedy of Michel Adanson’s intellectual life, continuously occupied with feeding the method for his thesis, for a world that’s impossible to circumscribe. Despite insistence from academics and friends of his in the European naturalist community, who begged him to publish the vast amounts of data he already had so that the thesis could be preserved and might inspire future scholars, Michel Adanson invariably refused, claiming he hadn’t finished. Death got the better of his hemming and hawing in 1806.

I like lives like Michel Adanson’s, lives consumed, absorbed, by some great impossible project, lives emblematic of the human mind’s thirst to sort the world into dictionary entries.

JA: This type of cataloging feels inextricably linked to colonization, and we see, throughout the novel, the types of harm inflicted on people and the natural environment in the name of “exploration”; the fates of the two seem interconnected, though Adanson seems more willing to recognize that plants have been harmed over people. (At one point, he laments that the “corpses” of trees are taken “so far from their mother Africa.”) And what did this novel reveal to you about the sinister ways colonization can ripple through the lives of people, places, and environments?

DD: Michel Adanson, by the mid-1700s, is already sensitive to the disappearing ebony forests exploited by Europeans since the 1500s. Awareness of mankind’s overexploitation of nature is nothing new. It felt that in my novel, through Michel Adanson, a man of the Enlightenment, a Cartesian, I could point to the negative impact that trade in raw materials from Africa has had on the environment and on the well-being of local populations. Maram Sack isn’t just a young woman Michel Adanson falls in love with, she’s also an emblematic character representing a nature different from his own. If Adanson is seeking to puncture nature’s mysteries in order to appropriate them, Maram as a healer is seeking nature’s conciliation, its cooperation. They’re two opposed visions of the world, which meet in Michel Adanson and Maram Seck.

JA: As much as Adanson tries to name and to know, it is clear there is a level of knowingness that he is never privy to. At what point does an outsider’s curiosity become a kind of violence? And how does language—or the imposition of language—factor into that?

We’re assailed by so many compromises due to happenstance in our daily lives, and we’re always so different from what we believe ourselves to be.

DD: One of Michel Adanson’s strengths is that, unlike with Linnaeus’s system of nomenclature, he wished to preserve the names of the African plants he was indexing. His thinking was that it wasn’t appropriate to give the plants Latin names, that the desirable thing was for the world’s memory banks to open up to non-European languages. For example, he wanted the baobab to go by its Wolof name, “Gouye” and not “Adansonia digitata” like Linnaeus advised as a form of paying homage. The Senegalese style of naming plants and animals wasn’t approved by the Academy of Sciences in Paris, who criticized him accordingly. But Michel Adanson says of the Wolof language, to anyone who wishes to hear it, “that it is gentle and vibrant.”

JA: You so deftly skewer colonialism even while writing from Adanson’s perspective. What was it like writing about this subject matter from a first person point of view, from a character who seems, in so many ways, to remain unaware of the ills he is perpetuating?

DD: The novel can be a wonderful staging device for the complexity of the human soul’s motivations. So, on the one hand, in his will, Michael Adanson sets aside some gold louis so a couple of his French friends can feast at his funeral like, and I quote, “the Black wise men and philosophers of Senegal.” And on the other hand he publishes a dissertation about the Compagnie du Sénégal’s interest in furthering the slave trade on the island of Gorée. Using “I” allows me to translate that complexity without actually expressing an anachronistic value judgment on the character.

JA: As a novelist and scholar, what interests you about story? And what power do stories hold?

DD: For me, what literature can do is seize hold of history and make it its own thing. Through some kind of transversal of the emotions at play in their literary work, writers can sensitize the reader around subjects or historical periods to which they otherwise would have remained indifferent. Literature moves where history explains.

JA: There is so much in this novel about narrative and the way stories shape us. For example, Adanson, in the novel, laments at one point that it is “too late to dictate the story of his own death” and also admits, “to what extent the opinion we have of ourselves depends on where we are and to whom we are talking.” What interests you about the intersections between identity and story? And what happens when the stories we tell ourselves prevent us from recognizing the ways we are harming others?

DD: Another power that the novel has is to give meaning, direction, and coherence to the lives of fictional characters. In real life, this illusion of control of our own destinies doesn’t exist. We’re assailed by so many contradictory feelings, so many compromises due to happenstance in our daily lives, and we’re always so different from what we believe ourselves to be, so that only the retrospective accounts we’re able to make about our lives seem to give them any meaning. Michel Adanson sees that “the more he writes” about Maram’s life, “the more he becomes a writer.” In other words, he gives Maram’s life meaning by recounting it and thus prevents her from escaping him again. But at the same time, by recounting Maram he’s recounting himself as well. Michel Adanson is discovering himself just as much as his daughter Aglaé will discover him by reading his secret notebooks.

For Michel Adanson, to write is to retrieve another self he thought he’d lost, and to find himself back in Maram’s company one last time. He carries her voice inside him. He can still see her with her loving eyes, like Orpheus turning to face Eurydice right at the moment when he thinks, wrongly, that the two of them have conquered death.

JA: What do you hope readers take away from this novel? And what do you take away from it, after writing?

DD: I would like readers to find additional reasons to shed their prejudices, as perhaps Aglaé will have done by reading her father’s “secret notebooks.” The start of the novel, relating how Aglaé discovers the writing Michel Adanson intended her to find in a secret drawer, is indicative. To read this story, Aglaé needed to prove that she deserved it. If she had neglected the shoddy furnishings his father bequeathed to her and the few memories they had in common, this manuscript hidden in a writing desk would never have been read, not by her, not by us over her shoulder. There are still far too many stories, perhaps, gathering dust in drawers of history no one has had the time or curiosity to open. To overcome your prejudices, you have to want to. Wisdom isn’t given, it has to be sought.

About the Translator:

Jonathan Woollen is a French-to-English translator from North Carolina, currently living in Brooklyn and working in publishing. Previously, he ran in-store events at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC.

More Like This

Parenting in the Smog of Industrial London

"On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases, in the Midst of the Smoke of London" by Daniel Mason, recommended by Michael Ray

Apr 29 - Daniel Mason

This Cookbook from 1942 Is a Textbook for Making a Better World

Revisiting "How to Cook a Wolf" in the era of climate change

Aug 29 - Abby Walthausen

Unheard Murmurs: Lyric Nonfiction in Space

Carl Sagan’s Voyager Record and Anthony Michael Morena’s The Voyager Record

Feb 8 - Michael Sheehan
Thank You!