The last section of An African in Greenland is titled “A True Greenlander,” but what a Greenlander is, well, that’s not easy to say.
In this final chapter, Robert Mattaaq — a native Greenlander and village elder at 63 — tells author Tété-Michel Kpomassie the story of the souls of names. They sit inside Robert’s turf and stone hut, a rarity in Greenland by the time Kpomassie gets there, as all similar huts have long been razed and replaced with flimsy Scandinavian-style wooden houses built by the colonizing Danish. When a man dies, Robert explains, all his different souls leave the body through his mouth — all except for one troublemaking soul, the ateqata, the soul of the dead man’s name. This soul of the name clings desperately to the corpse wanting only one thing: to live again in a newborn baby. Until this happens, the soul is restless. The name of the dead man becomes taboo in his own home and must never be spoken again. If the son or daughter shares the dead person’s name, he or she must change it. If the dead man is named after an object or an animal, the name of that animal or object is also changed, and so the language in Greenland constantly transforms with the death of its people. “A name not passed on to any child was never heard again, until the dead person had been forgotten.” But, Robert says, if there is no newborn around to take the name of the dead, a newborn puppy will do.
Published 30 years ago in 1981, An African in Greenland is a travel tale and it is also a story of naming. It’s the story of a man driven toward Greenland by an enthusiastically irrational desire to live among its people, a people he knows only through a travel book he found as a teen in a Jesuit bookstore in his native Togo. It’s not really so different from what motivates any of us to travel — longing mixed with a blurry impression of something we don’t know but we expect is different from what we do know, a desire simply to be taken out of our daily experience. In true gone-native style, Kpomassie adapts to the extreme cold of the country, devours seal blubber, learns to hunt Arctic fauna, and adopts furry Inuit fashions. He’s not shy about sharing numerous romantic escapades that the polite and less-involved traveler might have been horrified to have. (Early on he lands in the hospital “with a suspected venereal disease.”)
Yet Kpomassie never truly finds the fantasy that lured him across the world to Greenland: the “plump and smiling,” “happy, open and honest faces” of the Eskimos in his childhood book. To be sure, Greenlanders welcome him generously into their homes and lives. They are likewise fascinated by this tall dark stranger — the first African they have ever seen. But the citizens of Greenland are not the “authentic” cheerful Eskimos who hunt and live in igloos. They are a people exhausted from living as citizens of a Danish welfare state, listless and without ambition. Kpomassie relates Greenland’s pervasive domestic abuse and poverty, alcoholism fueled by the excess of Danish beer, akvavit, and imiak (a.k.a. Eskimo moonshine). In Southern Greenland in particular, inertia is peppered only with the occasional distraction of parties and shopping. Most Greenlanders have fervently embraced Christianity (Evangelical Lutheranism to be precise) and holidays such as Christmas are given far more attention than folk rituals.
Kpomassie’s journey from Africa to Greenland carries him north, north, north. But even after he arrives in Greenland and has realized his 10-year-old goal, Kpomassie never stops traveling. He comes to believe that if he just keeps going north, gets to Thule maybe, he will locate the True Greenlanders. Sure, Greenlanders tell him, in the North you might find some real Eskimos. Of course, they don’t say “Eskimo” but Inuit, which means “true man.” Kpomassie uses the two appellations interchangeably in An African in Greenland when referring to natives, though he mostly uses the word “Greenlander.” The Danes living permanently in Greenland he calls “Danes,” though interbreeding among the Inuit and Danes has been so common in the last few hundred years that it’s pretty hard to tell whose bloodlines run pure and what difference it makes anymore. It seems just about everyone in Greenland has one if not two Danish names. The Greenlandic language is full of words that are neither Inuit nor Danish but hybrids of both. Kpomassie is called Mikilissuâk (Michel the Giant), though sometimes he is called Qashluna, which sort of means “foreigner” though no one can quite remember its etymology. In Greenland, even the name for stranger has been rearranged.
Kpomassie wanders from village to village, making himself comfortable, but finding himself a little lost in a country lost in translation. He meets Father Fyn Lyng, a Catholic priest who speaks “French like a Frenchman” as well as English, Italian, Danish, Latin and Hebrew, and who was finally studying his native Eskimo. “I can speak it,” he says, “but I can’t claim to write it correctly.” And there’s Ib the Dane who married a Greenland woman and eats dog meat but still sends his clothing back to Denmark to be dry-cleaned. Kpomassie has a fantastic story about watching movies in Greenland, which were usually in a foreign language that nobody understood, with Danish subtitles that no one could read, and since Greenlanders had no patience for dubbing, films had to be stopped every 10 minutes while a disembodied voice from a loudspeaker explained to the audience what was going on. Toward the end of the book, Kpomassie describes a public New Year’s celebration in one of the northern villages. He writes how the villagers begin their festivities with a hearty round of “Nunarput Utoqqarsuanngoravit” (“Our Country Who’s Become So Old”), Greenland’s national anthem. But it’s pretty hard to dance to a national anthem, Kpomassie notes, especially when you are falling-down drunk, so they move on to a folk song, the lyrics of which describe a dream that Greenlanders might one day sail their own whaling ships. Then they move on to a lively Scottish reel. It is here that Kpomassie allows himself a rare moment of reflection on the loss of native Inuit traditions in Greenland. “In their amusements, the inhabitants of this western coast have retained hardly anything of their own cultural heritage, nothing that really belongs to them.” One wonders if Kpomassie would have gone to Greenland had he known that what he sought, that thing he couldn’t really name, was already lost, and perhaps never existed. The Greenlanders Kpomassie meets seem to drift through their lives, inseparable from their country, but rootless, like an ateqata looking for a new life.
Before the Danes took it over, Greenland’s inhabitants have ranged from the Paleo Eskimos to the Saqaaq, the Dorset culture, the Thule. There have been Icelandic and Norse settlements since the 10th century. Scottish whalers and Portuguese sailors have made themselves at home and the U.S. Air Base that arrived during World War II is still there, too. For millennia, Greenland, like every inhabitable landmass on Earth, was colonized and re-colonized. On this vast icy island, cultures flourished and disappeared. People intermingled and people were dominated. They assimilated and rebelled. It is a story of Greenland, and it is a story of everywhere. Which is to say that, where there is habitable land, there will be travelers with their eyes on it, and that every place, if you dig a little, will show you its scars. Every place is a place of evolution.
Almost immediately after its publishing, An African in Greenland became one of those books that gets talked about, written about, passed around and around among friends. This is how the book came to me, through my friend Jean. Jean’s own obsession with the book lead him to create an entire art show around it. A native Frenchman, Jean has adapted so well to New York life that we used to tell people his very slight accent came from New Jersey. For Jean, and for all the fans of the book, An African in Greenland taps into questions that gnaw at the traveler living in an increasingly globalized world. How does one enter a foreign land? As a tourist? A merchant? An impassive chronicler? An avid assimilator?
With travel now so easy, what are we to call ourselves when we go from place to place? What is the difference between the wanderer and the tourist? Between the tourist and the explorer? Kpomassie, who calls himself a “traveler,” never gives us answers to the questions he raises — not directly. One thing that makes An African in Greenland such a remarkable travelogue is its style. Kpomassie’s story is personal, not universal. It is told through the author’s actions and observations rather than his intentions. He often makes you feel as if you’re right there in the homes of Greenlanders, but rarely are you inside Kpomassie himself. Little details, like his age or the year, are absent or come quite late in the book (we learn in the last pages that he is 24). Moreover, it’s never clear why Kpomassie is so obsessed with going to Greenland in the first place, why he spent 10 years of his young life, working his way through mid-1960s Africa and Europe, trying to get there. Kpomassie has no pretensions to study Greenlanders. Though he grew up in French-controlled Togo, living — like Greenlanders — in the shadow of colonialism, he is uninterested in big sociological comparisons. He seldom makes judgments in the course of the book save those that come from a heartfelt delight or disgust or confusion. All he mentions is a “muddled, yet vivid wish…triggered perhaps by the pursuit of a recurrent dream…and a desire to find some last fixed point which would be neither southern Greenland nor Africa and above all not Europe!” Kpomassie’s travels begin with a childhood fascination and never stray. His unsatisfying, unprescriptive enthusiasm is the book’s charm. And maybe, also, its message. You’re in a position of deference as a traveler, a traveler in the Kpomassie sense. You’re unstable, uncomfortable. But you’re more receptive, too. Ironically, if you travel without expectations, you can often find yourself feeling more at home. You can be a traveler without being a stranger.
And so, Kpomassie eventually gives up his quest to find a True Greenlander, comes to appreciate the living, breathing, three-dimensional Greenland he finds. And he comes to feel, in the end, just as comfortable there as he always knew he would. “You hunt and fish with my sons,” says old Robert Maattaq. “You love our food, just like those foreigners who spend the rest of their lives among us….Every day they talked of going back to their own land, but they never did. They had become real kalenlek sochlo ichlit — like you, true Greenlanders!”
Mattaaq was right. Kpomassie never did go back to live in his own land, but he didn’t stay in Greenland, either, choosing instead to reside in France. In the last pages of An African in Greenland, as Kpomassie says goodbye to Maattaq and walks toward the boat that would take him back to Europe, he hears Robert behind him, calling out. “Then he turned around,” Kpomassie writes, “and I heard him say my name twice.” What name this was, the author doesn’t say. • 24 February 2011