Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono

Houseboy by Ferdinand

Cameroonian fiction

Original title – Une vie de boy

Translator – John Reed

My second 1956 club read take me too Cameroon and one of the first modern African writers . Ferdinand Oyono was educated in France and whilst studying in Paris he took to write his first two novels. This is one of them. He then became a start of stage and television. Then he was a diplomat representing Cameroon at the common market as it was then and was an ambassador he lead a full life and this was written in his twenties.It was published in 1966 as part of the African writer series although it is one of the earliest written books in the series having come out ten years earlier.

Everything I am I owe to Father Gilbert. He is my benefactor and I am very fond of him. He is cheerful and pleasent and when I was small he treated me like a pet animal he loved to pull my ears and all the time i have been getting an education he has loved to watch my constant amazement at everything

He had a strong bond to the father who sadly died before he was a man.

The book starts with the main character in the book Toundia Cameroonain Houseboy. He is found half dying in Spanish Guniea. This is a framing device as with him are discovered two exercise books and this is what the book is made of the diaries of this young boy. This is a tough story of a young boys life he has a violent father so he decides to run of and is taken under the wing of the local Catholic priest Father Gilbert who becomes a second father to the young boy but then in a bike crash the father is killed so the young boy is left to fend for himself. He is eventually taken in by the local Commandant for the region as a Houseboy in the house as his wife arrives from France to run the house all seems great as she is a kind warm characater but when her husband has to go away for months with her job she turns and everything the servents around the house is wrong as he sees the true face of the Europeans which till then he had looked up to and admired.

She tried to whistle but soon ran out of breath and fell silent. The noise of the bottle smashing on the cement floor brought a sharp “Damm”! She called me to clear up the mess. It was one of the bottles of preparation she puts on her face at night. Pieces of broken glass had gone under the bed. I knelt down and probing under the bed with the broom brought out not only the broken glass but also some little rubber bags. There were two of them. Madame heard the sound of sweeping stop and looked round. When saw me turning the little rubber bags over and over with the end of the broom she sprang on me and tried to push them under the bed with her. Instead she trod on one of them and a little liquid squirted out of it on the floor

The discover of these means she has had another man in her bed !!

This has the hallmarks of a lot of the early modern African fiction that came about as the countries where finding the feet it has the change of view in many people of the European former rulers of the countries in this case this is encapsulated in the character of the Madame the wife of the commandant but the behaviour of those others like the lover she has the head of the local prison leaving the young boy with a problem as he has seen this. It has the disillusionment of the young man his hope to be considered worth more with in the house leaves him with the choice that lead to the start of the book as the tale goes full circle. It capture the colonial situation in the view of one houseboy that could be seen as a wider view of the many a young man at that time. This is another reason why many more people should read the African writer series books they need be promoted more.

King Lazarus by Mongo Beti

King Lazarus

King Lazarus by Mongo Beti

Cameroon fiction

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 ?

March 2023


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