Cover Image: Michel the Giant

Michel the Giant

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Member Reviews

This is the wonderful story of a young dreamer from Africa travelling from the heat of Togo to the chill of the Greenland. Why on earth would you want to do such a thing? Read "Michel the Giant" and you will understand, because it's an amazing tale, written simply yet with incredible impact. The author has a sensitive understanding of human nature and an openness to experience that we could all learn from. Would give it five stars but for the gory details of the sea hunts and how the meat was prepared.
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Tété-Michel was born in Togo and it was only by chance he realised such a place as Greenland existed - he used to save up his small amount of working income and pick over the random books a local shop had for sale. One day there was a book featuring the Inuit people of Greenland. One look at the book and he determined he was going to go there (he worked out that he could hunt, they hunted, so he'd be OK) and so he waited till he was grown up enough, ran away from home and worked his way to disembarkation from Denmark EIGHT YEARS later. In that time he lived with various benefactors, including one French man who became his surrogate father, showing a remarkable resilience and ability to work, make friends and learn languages which was to stand him in good stead. 

What I was expecting from the book, and found in it, was a lot of really gruesome stuff around the lifestyle of the Greenlanders - hunting, eating all sorts of things one really wouldn't fancy eating, accidents and incidents, quite a few needing me to cover my Kindle as I hastily flicked the pages. But it's 1960s Greenland seen through the eyes of a hunter from Africa who wants to live as the Greenlanders do, so I'm not sure it's something one can complain about as such. I was also expecting him to stand out a bit, and that he did, with people mentioning they'd read about him in the paper and waited a year to meet him, etc. I was expecting some carousing and partying as I've read before about the use of alcohol in Greenland (this seemed to surprise Tété-Michel, coming from a culture where alcohol was eked out on ceremonial occasions) than it did me. I was a bit surprised about all the sex that went on, swapping partners and being offered other men's wives; but then he's a red-blooded man in his mid-20s and the culture is there, so again not something I can criticise (he does offer a critique, explaining his own jealousy but also how the serious partner-swapping between married couples does cement society and put in safeguards in a place where people die young and accidents are common). 

Full review on my blog published 7 April:
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The author's story is so enthralling that it is almost unbelievable and the entire book was absolutely fascinating. I don't even know how to properly describe this book or explain why it's so captivating -- I can just wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who might be reading this review. 

Kpomassie's experience feels almost modern at times, and it was hard to remember that some of these things happened in the 1960s. His perspective as a non-European traveler throughout Africa, continental Europe, and Greenland was so unique and relevant, and I appreciate how frequently he acknowledged his own biases and struggles to understand other cultures and their customs. Even though his story was told in the first person, I didn't feel like he had an "agenda" he wanted to communicate outside of explaining his experiences and what he learned from them -- it was extremely refreshing.
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Huge thanks to Penguin Classics both for republishing Michel the Giant and for allowing me to read a review copy via NetGalley. Although Tété-Michel Kpomassie gained worldwide fame at the time from the original publication of his Greenland travel memoir and the associated lecture tours he gave, I had never previously heard about his incredible expedition and the fascinating book he wrote as a result. Perhaps a cautionary tale of the dangers of allowing children free rein in libraries(!), Kpomassie's obsessive enthusiasm for the world's largest island was sparked by discovering a little book about Greenland's Eskimaux. Growing up in Togo, his life probably could not have been further removed from theirs, (and perhaps that was the attraction) yet he was determined to join the Greenlanders, the first African to do so.

I could not fail to be awed by Kpomassie's dedication to his quest. A lone sixteen year old boy travelling from Africa to Europe would today be demonised and exploited, but Kpomassie steadily worked his way to Paris, then to Copenhagen, then - years later - finally arrived, woefully underdressed, on Greenland's southern shore. His memoir of the journey is relatively brief, though none the less interesting for that, and it goes into much greater detail once he begins living in Greenlandic communities.

Despite having been written nearly half a century ago, I was delighted that Michel The Giant doesn't feel in any way dated. The prose feels vivid and fresh, and Kpomassie has a keen eye for detail. What was shocking and saddening was his depictions of the extreme poverty and deprivation of many Greenlandic lives, especially for those people who had been encouraged to embrace progress by abandoning their traditional lifestyles in favour of then-modern fishing industry and town living which simply could not support them. Kpomassie sees a society in transition, yet through remembering Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen, written some forty years later, I was aware that much of the self destructive behaviour he witnesses would still be central coping mechanisms for those people's descendants.

Michel The Giant is ideal reading, I think, for people interested in Arctic life and travel memoirs in general, but also for those studying post-colonial history and different cultures Kpomassie frequently compares his own Togolese culture with that of various Greenlandic communities finding differences, obviously, but also striking similarities. He also understands and contrasts the effects of French colonialism in Togo with that of Demark in Greenland. A powerful, educational and entertaining read.
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This was a fascinating account of life, first briefly in Africa, and then the writer's experiences in Greenland (after an interesting journey from Africa to Greenland).  The author writes in detail about many aspects of life in Greenland as he traveled from one place to another.  His experiences in each community were different as he befriended and lived with several different families.  The way he described the culture, the food and the adaptations to the harsh weather conditions was really detailed and I learnt so much about a country that I knew so little about.  There were some unusual tales and some shocking tales, but mostly it's a great memoir to the people he met and the people who took him in.
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