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 on an ethnographic journey that traversed the African continent from 1931 to 1933. Leiris, while maintaining the official records of the Mission, 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. 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.
First published in English by Seagull Books in 2017, Phantom Africa
is an invaluable document. Now available in paperback, this important book bears witness to the full range of social and political forces reshaping the African continent in the period between the World Wars.