What could those agonising last moments have been like? Who would have calmly watched his 10-year-old son being swept away by raging ocean waves? Pierre Cherruau did what a normal father was expected to have done that late Saturday afternoon: attempt to save him. Nothing else would have mattered to him then. Not even the fact that the heroic effort could cost him his life.
And, sadly, it did. According to the reports, his son Almami survived the ordeal. So did his older relative, who had joined in the rescue bid, even when his condition was declared critical.
So, it happened that the writer and journalist Pierre, who could have marked his 49th birthday on Monday, August 20, passed away sometime between the night of Saturday, August 18 and the early hours of Sunday, August 19 at the university hospital in Bordeaux, to where had been flown by an air ambulance.
Pierre, who until last year, used to be the French Embassy’s Regional Audio-visual Attaché in Abuja, had since returned to Paris to his first love: journalism. He owes much of his love for the profession and his complementary literary activities to background. His dad, also called Pierre, worked as the South-western France’s correspondent of Le Monde for 35 years as well as for the weekly Bordeaux-based newspaper, Sud Ouest. “It is a big regional paper in southwest France with a circulation figure of 400000,” he once told me, while we dined at the American Club in Ikoyi, Lagos. “I used to accompany my dad to the corporate headquarters of this newspaper. I also accompanied him when he was doing his reports.”
His mum too was a journalist, who not only worked for La Vie Economique, a business newspaper in Bordeaux, but was also a food critic for a gastronomical newspaper, Gault & Millau (after the two owners).
In Bordeaux, where he lived with his parents from age 3 until he was 22, he had honed his literary skills as a secondary school boy at Bordeaux’s Lycée Camille Jullian. He was only 11 years old when he published his first newspaper at age 11. This modestly-produced newspaper, Le Journal de Bordeaux, was photocopied and distributed and sold to people in the neighbourhood. This was while his dad was publishing his own newspaper, called Le Cheval de l’Ouest, which specialised on horse races.
Still in Bordeaux, Pierre studied concurrently at the Sciences-Po and the Université de Bordeaux, where he studied law from 1988 to 1992. He also later enrolled for a DEA in history at the same university while simultaneously studying at the University of Wolverhampton in the English Midlands. It was while at the latter that he “discovered England”. “At the university, I had a British girlfriend, whose parents lived in London,” he recalled. “Then, we would travel almost every weekend to see her family.”
Later, he would enrol to study at the prestigious Centre de Formation des Journalistes, which was deemed the best in France. It was soon after his graduation in 1993 that a new chapter was opened in his life. He travelled to Nigeria as a French cooperant to assume a post as the Alliance Française Director in the south-eastern town of Enugu.
Two years later, he was fully initiated into the exciting world of journalism. He had hop-scotched from working as Le Monde’s correspondent in Benin Republic, where he also stringed for other media houses (from 1995 to 1996), to participating in the launch of the weekly, L’Autre Afrique in 1997. This was when his first novel, Nena Rastaquouere, based on his Nigerian experiences, was published in Paris. “After reading the novel, the Africa Bureau Chief of the Courrier International asked me to replace him at the newspaper since he was leaving. I worked for 14 years at Courrier.”
Not long afterwards, in 2011, he launched the African edition of slate.com in French, which he edited for three years and later move on to work briefly for the Radio France Internationale web site (RFI.FR), from where he got the French Embassy, Abuja job.
Back in 1994, he was boarding his Paris-bound flight, on his way out of Nigeria. Looking back, he had relished his experience at the Alliance Française in Enugu, not just because it afforded him the opportunity to meet the locals but also given inspiration for the manuscript of his first novel, Nena Rastaquouere, which was eventually published by Le Seuil in 1997. The same publishing house later published his second novel, Lagos 666, in 2000.
His next novel, titled Nok en Stock, also on his Nigerian experience, was published by L’Ecailler du Sud in 2004, the year, he published a collection of interviews with African writers, titled D’Encre et D’Exils (Of Ink and Exiles), with the Editions Centre Pompidou. In 2006, he wrote Ballon Noir (Black Ball), which was published by L’Ecailler du Sud. Two other novels, based on his West African experience – Togo or Not Togo published by Baleine Seuil and Chien Fantôme (Ghost Dog) by Après la Lune – appeared in 2008. He published his only France-based novel, La Vacance du Petit Nicolas (Little Nicholas’s Holiday) with Baleine in 2011 and two years later, published Dakar-Paris: Un Voyage à Petites Foulées (Dakar-Paris: a Journey of Little Strides) with Calmann-Levy.
There was also the novel, Le Noir N’est Pas une Couleur (Black Is Not a Colour)whose storyline was based on the years of the Biafran War and was due to be published by Belfond.
At one of the events heralding the Port Harcourt World Book Capital, where hewas one of the two Francophone authors featured at interactive session in a Hotel Presidential hall brimming over with the local literati, he had dismissed the hint that his novels were autobiographical. “It would be too facile to recopy reality,” he argued. “My novels were never autobiographical. I always considered myself a journalist even when I write novels. It never interested me to speak about myself. I let others speak for themselves.”
Though born on August 20, 1969 in the historical Flemish town of Dunkirk, it was in Bordeaux that his literary career was nourished. Sadly, it was also in this south-western French city that he died…