One of the towering classics of twentieth-century French literature, Phantom Africa is a singular and ultimately unclassifiable work: a book composed of one man’s compulsive and constantly mutating daily travel journal—by turns melodramatic, self-deprecating, ecstatic and morose—as well as an exhaustively detailed account of the first French state-sponsored anthropological expedition to visit sub-Saharan Africa.
In 1930, Michel Leiris was an aspiring poet drifting away from the orbit of the Surrealist movement in Paris when the anthropologist Marcel Griaule invited him to serve as the ‘secretary-archivist’ for the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, a major collecting and ethnographic journey that traversed the African continent between May 1931 and February 1933. Leiris, while maintaining the official records of the mission, documenting the team’s acquisitions and participating in the research, also kept a diary where he noted not only a given day’s activities and events but also his impressions, his states of mind, his anxieties, his dreams and even his erotic fantasies.
Upon returning to France, rather than compiling a more conventional report or ethnographic study, Leiris decided simply to publish his diary, almost entirely untouched aside from minor corrections and a smattering of footnotes. The result is an extraordinary book: a day-by-day record of one European writer’s experiences in an Africa inexorably shaded by his own exotic delusions and expectations on the one hand, and an unparalleled depiction of the paradoxes and hypocrisies of conducting anthropological field research at the height of the colonial era on the other.
Never before available in English translation, Phantom Africa is an invaluable document. If the book is ‘a stone marking a bend on a path that is entirely personal’, as Leiris himself described it years later, it is also a book whose broad canvas bears witness to the full range of social and political forces reshaping the African continent in the period between the World Wars.
‘A magnificent book.’—London Review of Books. Read the exhaustive review here.
‘Leiris’s . . . “Phantom Africa” would be his first great work. Leiris did not approach what he called the “fortuitous circumstance” of his journey as a traditional ethnographer, partly because he had no training in the field. Instead, he kept a diary and—according to Brent Hayes Edwards, who translated the new edition—“was adamant that, aside from minor corrections,” the entries “were not revised after the fact.” The result is more than six hundred pages of journal entries, which recount dreams, the behavior of soldiers, a variety of conflicts with Griaule, erotic projections, aches, other aches, and a running measure of his distance from both the people he was studying and the people who had sent him to do the studying.’—New Yorker
‘Though he was an establishment figure in the public square, his writings question humanist pretenses and professed ideals: He wasn’t sure Western culture could ever justify the corrupt and corrupting nature of the civilization that produced it. Roiled in these contradictions and—and more politically enlightened about colonialism than the average white Parisian aesthete in the 1930s—the Michel Leiris of Phantom Africa prefigures the autobiographical stylist whose sharp, blasé equanimity would demystify the exotic and estrange the mundane.’—Tim Keane, Hyperallergic
‘It is Leiris himself, the anti-hero of his own recorded adventure, that inadvertently gives Phantom Africa its heart [. . .] Phantom Africa is raw, unmediated [. . .]. It is this intimacy, this willingness to be vulnerable, that one misses most when the journey, and the book, comes to a close.’—3:AM Magazine
‘Phantom Africa represents a poignant and beautiful window into something more universal.’—Pop Matters
‘It doesn’t matter that this travel diary—part field study, part confessional, first published in 1934—has arrived so late for an English readership. It comes with the additional resonance of a lost world.’—Duncan Fallowell, Questia
‘This is an “intellectual adventure more than physical” superimposed on a historical expedition: intimate, personal thoughts alongside ethnographic description and everyday life in Africa.’—Guillaume Segerer
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