The latest and probably last book written or at least designed by Nelson Mandela himself. It is a trip back into our past because he is our past. As far as I remember Nelson Mandela was standing there as the "eternal" prisoner of South Africa. We signed petitions, we demonstrated, we read poems demanding his liberation, we took part in exhibitions to express our solidarity. And one day he was free and he has remained, even when he was the President of South Africa, or when we can see him in a film, documentary or fiction, that symbol of the eternal prisoner who will always stand for the want, lack and need, of liberation, for everyone everywhere to be liberated and free.
But this book goes so far beyond this simple recollection of ours. It depicts a full panorama of his life, his thoughts, and his feelings. Small details, small events, small fights, small victories that build a full story, a myth even, a dream of a future that has the deepest roots in the past. We feel his fears and his joys, his frustrations and his satisfactions when something is refused to him, when something is retained from him, when something is granted to him, even if with some grumbling and resentment. Life is a long series of small events and the magnitude of some is not in the events themselves but in the symbolical value they take in the minds and the eyes of the people who witness the events.
And Nelson Mandela is so true to life, so naïve too. When he meets Eskimos for the first time and confronts his preconceived idea of Eskimos as uneducated people living in the frozen wild and hunting polar bears with the reality of late teenagers going to school and adults who are holding important positions in society, he retains his slightly biased surprise at a reality he could not imagine before and astonishes him still. It is simple situations like that one which make the book warm and human. When he is the "victim" of autograph hunters in London he yields because they waited a whole day for him and he had promised on his honor, a promise which they remind him of.
And he enjoys these small facts, events, circumstances. That enjoyment is so visible and palpable in all the pages that we just wonder how he has been able to retain such ability to rejoice in simple facts after so many years spent in prison and at times in the worst imaginable conditions. But he does and that is the myth. Some other books, some films show him doing some ancillary simple tasks like serving tea to his guest, though he is the president of South Africa, just out of respect for that guest of his from whom he is going to ask a favor.
That tone and atmosphere in the whole book transforms it into a story that we follow page after page, five or ten pages at a time, enjoying our making it last as long as we can, stretching the pleasure over several weeks. It is a rare book for me since it forced me to go slow, read slow, enjoy the pages and the sweet South African "idiosyncrasies" of his language and the corrections that are brought to the text here and there. I just invested this book in a long period of reading instead of just running from cover to cover. And it is my main everyday task to read books and read them fast. But this one has to be read in small installments to feel its matter penetrate our minds and feel relaxed and pleasured by the simple words and the simple feelings of a man who has been the greatest inspirer of this world for at least forty years.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID