The Belly of the Atlantic

Fatou Diome, The Belly of the Atlantic [Le Ventre de l’Atlantique]
translated by Lulu Norman and Ros Schwartz
(London: Serpent’s Tail, 2006)

‘Hello! Yes, it’s me. Ring me back at the call office.’
‘Madické? You OK?’
‘Yes. Ring me back now.’
00221… it’s not a number, it’s the part of my throat where France Telecom presses the pitiless blade of its knife. France to Senegal: the unit cost is high for students who are farmers’ sons, for those domestic goddesses who dress at Tati, for shop security guards who build up their muscles on noodles, tourists who visit Paris huddled on dumper trucks or gardeners who cut roses for Madame Dupont without ever being able to offer one to their luscious wives. I find the rate as indecent as hitting someone who’s dying. When Senghor was dreaming up the notion of Francophony, he should have borne in mind that the Frenchman is richer than most of the French-speaking world and negotiated a deal to spare us this communications racket.

In Diome’s novel, the telephone provides Salie, a migrant woman writer in Strasbourg, contact with her family back home in Senegal. Her brother Madické regularly calls her to find out football scores and to try to persuade Salie to buy him a ticket to join her in France. The phone both connects and divides the two countries: on the one hand, it is what the text describes as Salie’s ‘umbilical cord’ to Africa; on the other, it reminds her both of her distance from home in Senegal and her position of economic inferiority in France. While Salie has a phone in her apartment in France, Madické has to go to the call centre shared by everyone in the village. The phone also serves as reminder of the former colonisation of Senegal by France: although Salie’s brother knows very little French and would have spoken to his sister in their mother-tongue (Serer), all their telephone conversations are narrated in French.

by Nicki Hitchcott