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A Tale of Triple Estrangement, November 23, 2010

Sunday 12 May 2013

By Vakunta

This review is from: The Travail of Dieudonne (Peak Library) (Paperback)

The Travail of Dieudonné is a tale of triple estrangement. Nyamnjoh’s protagonist is physically separated from his homeland (Warzone), beloved wife (Tsanga) and opulence associated with materialism. The writer adumbrates: "Dieudonné misses his home village to the point of tears..." (153). Mimboland, his country of choice, is a dichotomized world where the haves and have-nots cohabitate willy-nilly. While Beverly Hills swims in the niceties of life, Swine Quarter—home to the underprivileged—is likened to a "bleeding ghetto" reputed for its "muddy meanders of footpaths and shacks whose walls were delicately sustained by ant-infested wood, human excrement, dog s***...multitudes of rats and cockroaches that celebrated impunity"(149). The word "impunity" is of critical importance, especially because in Mimboland a.k.a. the Republic of Cameroon laissez-faire, and dereliction of duty constitute insurmountable obstacles to good governance.

Nyamnjoh’s novel is a replica of the socio-political goings-on in Mimboland, a fictional country calqued on the author’s home country, Cameroon, but which could easily represent any African country in the throes of underdevelopment, bad governance and economic morass. The author’s acrimonious diatribe on the politicization of alcoholism is a salient feature of his satirical narrative. While the pauperized masses consume alcohol to numb the pangs of hunger and frustration, those at the helm employ it as a tool to keep dissent in the leash. Dieudonné admits: "There is a strange thing that has gripped and numbed us all since the colonial days. Alcohol. Its presence is widespread. It has invaded and consumed us all, making ash of manhood and nonsense of women who dare smile its way"(90).

Recourse to linguistic hybridity as a mode of writing cannot escape the reader’s notice. Nyamnjoh has a predilection for language mixing. His writing mode is reminiscent of Birago Diop’s style in Les contes d’Amadou Koumba (1961). Like Diop, he writes: "I am a nothing man. I am l’homme falsifié par la vérité... " (71). The excerpt above is a hotchpotch of English, Pidgin and French. It serves as a commentary on the multilingual backdrop against which the novel is written. All too often, the novelist juxtaposes French and English expressions as if to remind his readers that his characters are bilingual individuals proficient in both languages as the following remark made by Dieudonné clearly illustrates: "Nous vivons une terre des mots pas une terre des miracles—We live a world of words not a world of miracles" (30) .This text is distinctive in its interplay of indigenized and standardized expressions. Code-switching is an effective cross-cultural communication tool in The Travail of Dieudonné. It enables the novelist to express the cultural experiences of Cameroonians in a European language, in our case English.

Oftentimes, Nyamnjoh spices his narrative with indigenous language expressions in order to make the discourse respond more realistically to the prevailing mentality of his characters. Dieudonné’s unquestionable faith in providence, for example, is expressed through his frequent use of the Arabic/Hausa expression "Insha’ Allah" (32).Recourse to Africanized expressions offers the writer Nyamnjoh the opportunity to shed light on the worldview and thought patterns of his characters. By availing himself of the technique of linguistic indigenization he succeeds in underscoring the impact of native tongues on creative writing in Africa.

Pidginization enables him to bridge the conceptual gap created by the use of European languages considered too poorly equipped to convey the speech mannerisms and sensibilities of Africans. The novel is replete with Pidgin English expressions that highlight the prism through which Nyamnjoh’s characters perceive reality as the following excerpt illustrates: "Cow wey yi get tail na God di driv’am fly"(40). One can hardly speak of this writer’s narrative technique without reckoning with the linguistic novelty that characterizes his style of writing. Alternating between French, English, Pidgin and vernacular languages is a technique that he uses adeptly to depict the various socio-cultural peculiarities of Mimboland. Seen through this prism, The Travail of Dieudonné addresses the language question in Cameroonian literature.

This text is intriguing in several respects, not least of which is the significance of the act of naming. Onomastics is meant to bear a stamp of cultural identity in Nyamnjoh’s storytelling. Other names in the narrative are allusive or even symbolic. Arguing along similar lines, Lefevere notes: "Writers sometimes use names not just to name characters in a poem, story, novel, or play but to describe those characters" (39). Nyamnjoh’s names usually contain an allusion to words in the language, and that allusion allows readers to characterize characters to a great extent. As the protagonist points out: "Today I mostly remember that village as the land where each day of the week had a female name and a male name, and girls and boys were named after the day they were born"(62). By christening his main character "Dieudonné," Nyamnjoh invites an ambivalent interpretation of the nomenclature. Are Dieudonné’s travails attributable to Providence—a force he fervently believes in—or to extraneous factors against which he is powerless? Is he a victim of his own foibles, notably his uncontrollable craving for alcohol? Each name in the text is imbued with some signification, a comment on the name-bearer. Chopngomna is a name that is pregnant with meaning.

This government functionary is not only a spendthrift but also a compulsive embezzler. Nicknamed "the man with the bleeding wallet," (73) he "had identified himself with a proud tradition of the civil service, where a goat is meant to eat where it is tethered, and where it is normal and indeed to be celebrated, for someone `wrongly’ accused of illicit self-enrichment to put the records straight by declaring: Ces sont les gratitudes et les servitudes de la fonction publique"(73). Chopngomna is intended to serve as a metonym for the endemic corruption that has become widespread in Mimboland.

On the contrary, Nyamnjoh’s female characters are given fancier names. The bartender at the Grand Canari bar is branded "Precious" on account of her "slim dark-skinned beauty"(155). Dieudonné has an unrequited love for her because she has kept her ebony dark complexion intact"(158). In his own words, Precious is "omelette nature"(158). The telltale sobriquet she has earned on account of the ludicrously small salary she earns at the Grand Canari bar is "SIDA (Salaire insuffisant difficilement acquis) (159)", which could be translated as Insufficient salary painfully earned. Her boss—the sumptuous amply endowed bejeweled proprietress of Grand Canari is named Madame Gazellia Mamelle on account of her flare for money. She "has a nose for money" (156).It should be noted that Nyamnjoh’s female characters have a predilection for money-mongering.

The Travail of Dieudonné is a rap on totalitarian institutions. Nyamnjoh takes a jibe at Africa’s demo-dictators, the likes of President Longstay of Mimboland. Cameroonians would easily replace President Longstay of Mimboland with President Paul Biya of Cameroon. Biya has been in power for more than thirty years at the time of writing this book. By all means, fair or foul thid lame duck leader manipulates elections to remain in power in perpetuity. The likes of Paul Biya orchestrate wanton destruction of property and human life when faced with the likelihood of exit from power. Together with inept lieutenants like Chopngomna, such leaders aid and abet dereliction of duty, impunity and the misappropriation of State funds.

Bleak as the portrait may be, this novel appears futuristic. It is a harbinger of good tidings—the advent of genuine Uhuru to Africa: "The freedoms of the future are yet to be born"(163). Dieudonné may be at his wit’s end, he may be an `object’ to be transferred from one master to the other; yet he nurses hope for a better tomorrow. His faith in Providence is his toughest armor against the vagaries of life. As he observes: " The more I try and fail in my attempt to shape my life, the more I realize how my will is but a tiny bit of Allah’s grand design"(163).

Throughout the narrative, the reader appreciates not just Nyamnjoh’s skill at storytelling but also his verve at word-smiting. In a nutshell, The Travail of Dieudonné is the handiwork of creative genius; an aficionado of linguistic jugglery. I highly recommend this book for classes focused on intercultural communication.


Dr. Vakunta is a professor of literature and postcolonial studies.

See online: A Tale of Triple Estrangement, November 23, 2010