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Cameroon Under Colonial Powers

Friday 20 May 2016

by CHARLES R. LARSON

In a novel full of memorable scenes, one stands out in Patrice Nganang’s unforgettable Mount Pleasant because of the way expectations can quickly have unintended consequences. The scene is late in the narration that is non-sequential, constantly circling back upon itself, slowly revealing major events during Cameroon’s complicated colonial past, roughly between 1903 and the end of World War II. During those years, the western areas of the country were under German, English, and French occupation, all because of shifting events in Europe. As soon as the subjects grew accustomed to one colonial power, the next one replaced it, and the educated elite, especially, were exposed to a vastly different culture. Think of the difficulties Americans have comprehending the differences between German and French cultures. Imagine what this must have been for Africans.

The scene that will so alter Bamum culture involves a German priest, Father Vogt, who believes that if he can tell the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection by replacing the Biblical figures with local names, he may finally be able to convert the Bamum, including their Sultan, Njoya, a Muslim. Vogt has told the Sultan that this is the penultimate story, the “Story of Stories” (Christ’s betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection), a fact that is important because of the Sultan’s high regard for oral story telling. In Vogt’s rendering, Judas Iscariot is replaced by Nji Shua, which happens to be the name of the local carpenter, a scoundrel. The day after Vogt tells the story, that carpenter is discovered “crucified on the branches of a eucalyptus.” This is where the incident takes on unexpected consequences because Sultan Njoya, who was convinced of the story’s truth, assumes that in three days’ time Nji Shua will be resurrected.

“With the zeal of the newly converted, everyone waited three days, staring at the face of the dead man, who, they were certain, couldn’t fail to rise from the dead and complete that mountpleasantalready mythical tableau of his suffering. There were even some so zealous that they swore that Nji Shua’s beard had gone white; others insisted that hair was growing on his bald spot. All these rumors contributed to turning his cadaver into a legend. The wives he had treated so badly during his lifetime declared him a saint.” Nji Shua had been such a reviled man that he paid his apprentices to crucify him, believing that he would die a hero: “Being crucified was the only good thing that could still happen to him.”

Imagine the surprise, the consternation of the villagers, when the carpenter is not resurrected. The Sultan—an erudite man, who encouraged the local artists in their work, who was not only a linguist but also someone who today would be called a patron of the arts—had spent much of his adult life encouraging and supporting an entire community of artists. When he had heard the priest’s story of Judgment Day and then about Nji Shua’s decision to be crucified because of “his deep need for salvation,” the Sultan was reminded of “the illusory depths and false promises of tales. Njoya was disappointed, but he was certain that the dead man hadn’t just written another version of his life, he had put an end to stories altogether. After this, no other story would make any sense. There were no more delicious stories to listen to or interesting folktales to tell.”

Father Vogt fails to convert the Sultan, and the very foundation of the Sultan’s life—his support of a community of artists, his focus on their creativity—has been called into question. He had so revered the art of storytelling that Mount Pleasant, the site of his residence, had been transformed into a House of Words, a House of Stories, even the Palace of All Possible Dreams; he had delighted in studying local languages and those of the colonial powers, even insisted that some of Europe’s great literary works be read to him aloud. But the day he realized that the dead man had not been resurrected, “He had come through the world’s stories and discovered that the only thing that remained was the palpable reality of the present, all stories being but the prologue to life.”

And, yet, the Sultan’s transformation is only one thread of Nganang’s mesmerizing Mount Pleasant, which is as much as anything the story of a ninety-year-old woman, named Sara, who was born a slave, and became part of the Sultan’s inner court, but only after she took on the guise of a young boy. The narrator of her story is a female American student, of Cameroon heritage, who comes to the area for her research for graduate work and encounters Sara and slowly prompts her to tell the story of her life—as a young man, named Nebu—but also of the entire court under the fluxiating years of colonial rule. An even more dazzling aspect of the narration is the account of how Nebu takes on the identity of the deceased son of the slave woman who trained Sultan Njoya’s brides (nearly 600 of them). That woman, named Bertha, has the same name of the graduate student from America.

Two characters named Nebu, two others named Bertha, written stories and oral stories, Sultan Njoya and the local chief named Charles Atangame, colonialism and an independent Cameroon—all of these aspects of Patrice Nganang’s dazzling novel propel this work into a league of its own, so different from the great majority of novels by African writers in the past fifty or sixty years. In spite of the incidents I have described, Mount Pleasant is not an angry novel but a redemptive story of Africa’s potential. It’s not an attack on colonialism, but a rich mosaic of one small area of West Africa, one part of Cameroon, where a culture celebrated art and beauty—the life of the mind. Bertha, the graduate student, pulls the incredible account of this community from the memory of an old woman, who once lived as a man. But Patrice Nganang is the real genius here, giving up his gender to his two women narrators, and making their encounter the greatest story of all.

Amy Baram Reid’s translation is superb.

Patrice Nganang: Mount Pleasant Trans. by Amy Baram Reid Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 369 pp., $26

See online: Cameroon Under Colonial Powers