King Lazarus by Mongo Beti
Translator – Peter Green
Source personnel copy
As I said yesterday I was shocked when in Alain Mabanckou in his book ,Black Bazaar, they were discussing early French language fiction from Africa and Mongo Beti was mentioned ,it served to remind me I hadn’t reviewed this book that I had read last year .So too Mongo Beti ,was out spoken as a kid about religion and colonialism in africa .He was expelled from his missionary school but did manage to get to university in France where he studied literature , first at Aix-en-Provence he then went to the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris ,before returning to Cameroon ,where he wrote journalism ,including a scathing piece on the writer Camara Laye for what he saw as a book pandering to western tastes ,not African tastes.He then choose to write novels himself ,writing a number of books a number of which appeared in the ealry collection of the African writer series .He did end up spending a lot of his life in exile .
The same day the reverend father mustered all his determination and will-power and sought audience with the chief .What took place no-one discovered .Directly Le Guen left ,the chief summoned his brother ,telling him to send away all the palace wives .
“Except the one and only wife to whom I shall be married in the eyes of god ”
“And which one might that be ? ” Mekenda enquired cautiously .
The Chief makes his choices .
After reading up on Mongo Beti his motivation for writing this book became clear ,this book is a vision of how he saw Cameroon ,missionaries and tribal life in his homeland .The book centres on The chief of the Essazam ,who has decide to embrace the catholic faith .Now this is where the problems start for him ,because he has a number of wives 23 in all .The church has been pushing him to choose just one of the women so he choose the youngest of his wives to be his only bride in the eyes of god .Now this isn’t the simplest thing for him to do because the other 22 wives don’t want to lose the position or lose face within the tribe ,thus setting up a trick situation .On top of this the chief is being pushed into this by Le Guen the priest ,as Le Guen in turn is facing pressure from his bishop to make the chief convert as they see him converting as a powerful figure for the church in the country .
At the time of the events this story describe ,the girl was barely fifteen .An impetuous ,passionate creature, la bell ,Medzo ,her opulent Bosom the more striking for the bird-fine adolescent body .Already the most attractive women in the place .
WHat happens to Medzo ?
Well as you see this is very much tribal world and way of life clashing with the incoming Christian religion .The title is a spin on the old tale because instead of everything turning to gold as the priest and his bishop hopes ,it in fact has the opposite effect for the Chief .Given that Beti was critical of Laye ,you can see that this book which he wrote after that is very much a book that appeals to Africans in the post colonial world at the time it was written 1958 France and both the UK were starting to withdraw from Africa ,in fact Cameroon became independent just two years after this book was published .Satire is the way Beti choose to show the world of the chief and the priest ,to show the madness of the two worlds clashing the Christian world and it values and the Tribal world .The Pressure on Le Guen to make him decide to become a Catholic ,without seeing the bigger picture .Beti has written here a sharply observed book capturing a shifting world in time that world of older values and western messing with these values .This book seems out of print which is a shame but old African writer copies seem easily available online .This book shows yet again how in the early years of this series the Late Chinua Achebe ,who sadly passed away last week ,made some great choices for this series by picking strong voices out of Africa.
Have you read any books from Cameroon ?