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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Never an elien


The novel saddened yet made me laugh out loud as well. Three years ago Richard Wright’s Lawd Today made me feel this way. I had all forgotten until I opened Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy, which I bought curiously because I had never read a Cameroonean novel before.

In this work, unpredictability jumps off leaf after leaf.

When Tounde Ondoua runs away from his cruel father into Saint Peter’s Catholic Mission, you love everything the benevolent Father Gilbert teaches him: reading and writing and keeping his own diary. It is his daily recordings in the two exercise books that will sadden yet charm you.

Tounde is fascinated by everything white and when his master and benefactor is suddenly killed in a motorbike accident, he becomes the Commandant’s houseboy. His life begins its nosedown when Madame, his boss’ wife –inexpressibly pretty and delicate –joins his husband and shamelessly begins her cheating ways.

The houseboy is now a brave, witty and keen a man Madame has fallen for but won’t say; a man she knows is not stupid and knows about her looseness as much as her sweating armpits; a man that respects and admires his boss and won’t betray him even if she seduced him.

Imagine Tounde’s shock when he discovers the Commandant knows about his wife’s randy ways but can’t assert himself as a man. For example he vows to leave her but when Tounde catches them kissing soon after, the Commandant behaves like a boy caught stealing something he pretended not to like. Guilt and the knowledge that Tounde knows their ugly secrets drives the Commandant and his wife to frame their houseboy and have him eliminated.

Next we are in the prison; the pathway to the cemetery. It’s terrible. Think of hippopotamus-hide whips and iron boots flogging and kicking innocent blacks. Imagine having a ruffle butt in your chest. Imagine a hospital being called the ‘Blackman’s Grave’? Then on Sunday the colonial priest still finds the voice to tell the “Dearly beloved brethren” to “ pray for all those prisoners who die without peace with God…”

Houseboy is about that and more. It’s about two worlds: The black world is a long dark pit and the other is the couch in your rich Dad’s living room. The whiteman is the one that has come to ‘save’ the blackman’s soul by preaching love of neighbour as of self but his neighbour is the blackman whose land he has stolen. The question of equality is out. Natives have lost hope.

But maybe it’s not all lost because the author still paints the Africans as the true connoisseurs. For example when Tounde collects his decomposing bones into an escape and finds himself in some hat being nursed by fellow Africans, he manages a mischievous wink in spite of the pain. The loving kindness of natives stands out and they are presented as resilient and conscientious workers.

On the other hand, the point is loud and clear that never trust an alien. I still ask myself why poor Tounde is sacrificed and then it hits me his storyline would have been different had the naivety of boyhood not driven him away. As he puts it on his deathbed: “I’d have made old bones if I’d been good and stayed at home in the village.”’

Overall, Mr. Oyono’s magic is in his frugal use of words and ability to show you that not all houseboys are stupid.

--Sunday Monitor, October 19, 2008