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Mind Searching

2007, author(s)-editor(s) Francis B. Nyamnjoh

In Mind Searching Nyamnjoh has attempted to do something rather clever - to expose, through the attitudes, feelings and thoughts of one man and a very simple story, the hypocrisy and corruption of Cameroon society and humanity in general, often using understatement and irony in good effect. The commentary is unremittingly cynical and returns again and again to corruption, callous squandering, exploitation, prostitution, and other fairly worn butts. The book depicts a society where basic freedoms are shackled, and thinking aloud treasonable. Hence the mental ramblings of the narrator and central character Judascious Fanda Yanda, in the form of an extended monologue full of observations, anecdotes and asides written from the point of view of an apparently insouciant naive. The basic method is to foreground the opinions and conversational elegance of the narrator, while having events going on as a background to his thoughts. We trace the narrator’s progress from a disenchanted ’Damné de la Terre’ to a comfortably well off Private Secretary to a Vice Minister over a number of years. It is a clear illustration of how the system perpetuates its mediocrity and buys off any spark of initiative. Nyamnjoh has a good command of ironic tone and sound control over form and structure. He employs a very fluent style, and often has very urbane and neat turns of phrase. He captures the bored, superior, cynical and ultimately predatory tone of voice of his narrator extremely well.

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ISBN 9789956558049 | 232 pages | 203 x 127 mm | 2007 | Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon | Paperback

1 Review

  • Nyamnjoh’s Mind Searching and A Nose for Money 26 May 2009 00:22, author(s)-editor(s) Roos Keja

    Recently, the Langaa Research and Publishing Common Initiative Group in Bamenda has republished Francis Nyamnjoh’s first novel Mind Searching (2007 [1991]). After having read A Nose for Money (2006) which came with lightning and thunder, Mind Searching entered my mind as a thought provoking but gentle breath of air. The central theme in the two novels is the perverse functioning of the political system and its effects on the man in the street, in Mind Searching explicitly set in Cameroon, in A Nose For Money in the fictional Mimboland, a mirror of Nyamnjoh’s beloved and reviled Cameroon. Where the protagonist of Mind Searching, Judascious Fanda Yanda, is presented as a more or less virtuous man in most part of the book, Prospère, the protagonist of the second novel, is far more opportunistic right from the start. Although the idea that greed is stronger than anything else prevails in both novels, it is worked out in much more detail in A Nose for Money.

    MIND SEARCHING

    As the title Mind Searching suggests, the reader is presented with the detailed river of thoughts of Judascious Fanda Yanda. He is a young man, a pious Christian, living in Briqueterie, a poor neighbourhood of the capital. One of the persons who gives him a lot of food for thought is the very prosperous Honourable Vice Minister, who attends the same church as he does. Judascious Fanda Yanda knows that this minister rends nocturnal visits to a fortune teller behind his shack. When there is a baptism feast at the residence of the minister, Judascious Fanda Yanda decides to “capitalise” upon the piece of knowledge that he has (p.106) by telling the minister he knows all about his secret visits. It appears that this is the key to a better life, providing Judascious Fanda Yanda an entrance to the world of the well-to-do-people: It so happens that the Honourable V.M. gives him a job as his Private Secretary in exchange for keeping the secret. like At the end of the story, Judascious Fanda Yanda can be considered a successful young man, who has moved from the shacks of the neighbourhood Briqueterie to the upper-class quarter of Bastos.

    A NOSE FOR MONEY

    Where Judascious Fanda Yanda is at least able to make sense of the world around him by his excessive thinking, it seems as if Prospère in A Nose for Money does not have his life in hand. Prospère starts as a truck driver, living in a slum quarter with his wife Rose whom he loves very much. When he catches her in the act with another man, he does not react. He does not show his anger and sadness, he figures the best way is to forget about the event. Rose cannot deal with this and flees back to her parents. After this, he gets hold on a very big sum of money by coincidence and he decides to move to the capital to start a new life.

    Soon after his arrival, he links up with the honourable Matiba, Minister of Education an Health. “This was his only tribesman in government, but with whose help Prospère hoped to be able to bank his millions without arousing suspicion” (p.89). The honourable Matiba is very willing to help launder the money and to get a piece of the pie. His services pay back; within a few years Prospère finds himself among the richest men of the country. Having a wife and children is part of being prosperous, so he marries Charlotte. He does not fully trust her and thinks to solve the issue by taking his mistress Chantal as a second wife. Contrary to his expectations, the two women become very good friends. For his 42th birthday, he decides to marry Monique, a ‘young juicy fruit’, who reminds him of Rose. She is reluctant to marry him, but when her parents get to understand how rich Prospère is, they do not think twice and urge her to marry him. Monique is perceived as an enemy by Charlotte and Chantal, and after a few years of unhappiness, she gets very ill and passes away. Prospère decides to go to a diviner to understand this misfortune. The diviner asks him to bring his two wives, who reveal their well-kept secret about their marriage with Prospère, who is not able to digest this truth. With a shocking end of the story, it turns out that Prospère is not fit for the life he has bought himself.

    PROSPÈRE VERSUS JUDASCIOUS FANDA YANDA

    The protagonists both start as poor men with a dissatisfied feeling about their life. They feel it is unfair that they are struggling excessively to make a living, while the corrupt politicians in their country are filling their pockets. Interestingly enough, they are both orphans, disconnected from a family. They are uprooted, living a colourless life at the margins of a big city, until they get a good seat in the neo-patrimonial theatre by successfully linking up with a minister. In both novels, the minister can be seen as their substitute father who nourishes them. The only difference is that they are not given love, but material wealth. This difference is crucial, for it reflects the emptiness of their existence. They do not have anyone to rely on, so their money becomes the factor which determines their ‘success’ in life.

    The thoughts which Judascious Fanda Yanda shares with the reader evoke some feelings of sympathy for his person. It seems as if he is unhappy with the unfair political system that is fuelled by corruption and keeps so many people poor. However, in the last part of the novel, he has fully turned into another man, working for the Honourable Vice Minister and earning more than he can consume. It leaves the reader with a slightly disrupted feeling; this man, with such well-intended ideas, has turned out to set aside all his noble ideas for such an ‘earthly’ matter as material wealth.

    The decision of the author to give Prospère this wealth-abiding characteristic from the beginning of the story shows the maturity of his writing. The moves of Prospère are more coherent than the mind switch of Judascious Fanda Yanda. He can be considered a ‘lost’ man from the moment his wife Rose leaves him, which happens in the first chapter. The way Prospère swallows all his feelings strikes the reader as almost inhuman. His character hardly evokes any sympathy, and the end of the story does serve him right. It is striking how he thinks he can buy everything with money and it is even more striking that he is shocked when it turns out that love and happiness cannot be bought.

    THE GREEDY AND THE NAÏVE

    The few honest, unselfish persons in both stories, who are not driven by greed, are sold down the river by the greedy people. In Mind Searching there is Dr Q, a man whom Judascious Fanda Yanda meets on the public transport and who lashes out at the ‘rotten system’ in which intellectuals do not get the chance to help develop the country because it is not in the interest of the ones in power. Judascious Fanda Yanda admires Dr Q, but also feels sorry for him because it is well possible that the intelligence service is after him and his body will be dumped in the River Sanaga (p.174).

    In A Nose for Money, the situation of Monique, the very sincere third wife of Prospère with selfless intentions, is even more deplorable. She is loathed and debarred by her two co-wives who are married to Prospère out of material self enrichment, she cannot be pleased with any of the presents Prospère is giving her and she does not get pregnant. Instead, she gets very depressed and eventually dies from an incurable illness. It seems as if this one very pure person has to pay for the voracity of the people surrounding her.

    The picture Nyamnjoh depicts in both novels is a very dark one. The hope that is there in Mind Searching eventually gets shattered because of the greed of the protagonist. He also wants a piece of the cake and therefore will turn a blind eye to unethical government practices. Even more so in A Nose for Money, Nyamnjoh is perfectly able to bring about a feeling of uneasiness from the first line to the last. From the start you know something is not right at all, but you cannot put your finger on the sore spot. All sparkles of light are consequently extinguished by Prospère’s self-indulgence. Having grown up in a country where people spend more time with their pet animals than with their neighbours, where the poor get government support and one in two people own a car, I have learned to believe in a happy end. It was not until the last five pages that I finally gave up and realised that sometimes it is naïve to believe that everything is going to be alright. The biggest force of this novel might be that it is the sore spot itself.

    GREED AND THE FRUSTRATIONS OF INEQUALITY

    So is there no hope? Why does Nyamnjoh not leave any space for sympathy for Prospère? The abandonment by Rose does partly explain Prospère’s unrestrained-ness, but it is quite clear why she abandoned him; he more or less asked for it by his strange behavior. Although Prospère becomes one of the most powerful men in the country, his incompetence radiates throughout the entire story. What makes him incompetent is not so much that he is illiterate, but that he has not learnt to deal with his feelings. This could have something to do with his family situation; the man has no mother or father, brother or sister who can advice or reassure him. He also has lost touch with the social network of the village, that could offer security and a feeling of belonging. When he goes to the village where his parents were born to consult a diviner, the diviner urges Prospère to strengthen the ties with the village. Prospère does not follow his advice because he thinks he is invincible with all his money.

    It seems as if Prospère is a man who is greedy to the bone, as well as his two wives Charlotte and Chantal. Nyamnjoh seems to express that the accumulation of wealth is a consequence of pure greed. So are people like Prospère, Charlotte, Chantal, Judascious Fanda Yanda and the ministers greedy people? Is today’s Cameroon really made of people who, if they got the chance, instantly would go for the money? If we assume that most of the people are like this, what then are the reasons for this behavior? Sheer greed might be too simple an explanation for the accumulation of wealth, it could well be an expression of the frustrations inequality has brought. Maybe people are not that greedy after all, but the perverse political system has forced its people to become like this.

    The picture Nyamnjoh captures is, in my opinion, too dark. Each day there is a moment for every single person to change his life. No system, be it on the macro-level or on individual level, is bound to persist for hundreds of years. If the inequality decreases and the standards of living increase, frustration decreases. I strongly believe most people simply want to live their lives in a tranquil, peaceful way, having enough to feed their families and be in good relations with their neighbors. It is only if relations are constrained that people will resort to excessive behavior. Now sadly enough, presently it is the case in Cameroon that relations on different levels are indeed constrained. It remains to be seen for how long the government will be principally composed of men and women who consciously grope about more wealth than they can spend, while their fellow countrymen live in poverty. Furthermore, how long will they be supported by women whose main concern is to get hold on the most recent Parisian dress? Hope could come from people like Mr Q who dare to speak up, who do not solely act out of selfishness but also of a genuine feeling of concern. So far it remains uncertain whether Mr Q and his counterparts have made it to the United States or a likewise country and whether and when they will come back. Finally, we will see whether and how the situation will change if they speak and act up both from within and outside the country that they love notwithstanding its very dark sides.

    * Roos Keja is affiliated with the African Studies Centre, Leiden, The Netherlands