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No Way to Die

Tuesday 15 September 2009, author(s)-editor(s) Linus Asong

What happens when a young man of talent and visions of greatness falls victim to a cruel set of circumstances over which he has no control? No Way to Die is such a story. Dennis Nunqam Ndendemajem gives up! Even when he is given a second chance to start again, he refuses to gather the broken pieces of his life together. He refuses to rebuild, and refuses to live. But he also finds no way to die.

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ISBN 995655846X | 246 pages | 8 x 5 x 0.6 inches | 2009 | Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon | Paperback

1 Review

  • A Study of "No Way to Die" 5 March 2010 09:58, author(s)-editor(s) Prof. S.A. Ambanasom (Dept of English, E.N.S. Annexe, Bambili)

    The title of L.T.Asong’s No Way to Die is part of an utterance made at the end of the novel by Max, a character in the book who has struggled hard but in vain to help his friend Dennis Nunqam to live above the poverty line. But at the end of the novel, Nunqam, the severe neurotic and anti-hero, attempts to commit suicide, ruining Max’s good intentions. Then the frustrated Max, in a judgmental statement, says “this is No Way to Die”, with implied condemnation of Nunqam’s act. But did Nunqam have a better way to die? Given the fateful coincidences surrounding him could he have done otherwise? The thesis I intend to defend in this paper is that given the strong presence of destiny in No Way to Die Dennis Nunqam had no other way to die

    But before we develop this thesis, a word or two relating to the plot is necessary. .No Way to Die is a sad story of a talented artist, Dennis Nunqam, the anti-hero of the novel. Despite what he does or what his benefactors try to do to help him, the ultimate outcome is disappointment. The novel’s central theme is the tragedy of the futility of Nunqam’s aspirations. Destiny, a power beyond Nunqam’s control, seems to be ordering events in his life for worse; the scales are heavily weighted against Nunqam’s chances of happiness.

    We should briefly summarise the five instances of fateful coincidences that stand in the way of Nunqam’s aspirations. In each case the victim referred to is Nunqam:
    (1) A brilliant secondary school student is confronted with poverty; the latter succeeds in sending him away from school.
    (2) A talented artist is awarded a scholarship to study in the U.S.; but close to the time of departure he learns to his greatest shock and chagrin that the daughter of the Minister of Information and Culture is gone in his place!
    (3) An ambitious Cameroonian artist is helped by a British citizen into Britain to study art; but at the London airport he is repatriated and thrown into jail because his passport is not regular.
    (4) A nonchalant artist is persuaded by a well-wisher to study and register to write the G.C.E. exam; but his registration is ineffective because his money order has been stolen at the Post Office.
    (5) An even more nonchalant and apathetic artist is confronted by his friend with the hope that he has been more effectively registered for the next G.C.E. exam session; but now all is let loose in his host family as a nerve-racking domestic quarrel reveals ugly family secrets, leading to Dr. & Mrs Max washing their dirty linen in public. And all this because of the troubles of this unfortunate and ill-starred man, Nunqam. Nunqam cannot bear the idea of living and knowing that his own woes have ruined Max’s marriage. This thought, together with Nunqam’s self-persecution and death instinct, ends up making death the only way out for him.

    In isolation these are credible coincidences. But when imaginatively strung together, perhaps not in quick succession as they really appear in the novel, they produce a distinct pattern; they convey the unmistakable impression of a view of life that is pessimistic. We are talking of an outlook of the world that appears to hold that human life is controlled by a non-beneficent providence; that man is sometimes ruled by a power that does not always care about the welfare of his creatures; a providence who mostly gives them, instead of joy and happiness, suffering and sadness. In my opinion this is the thesis that the novel seems to be designed to illustrate, making it a classic roman à thèse, as the French would say. And the thesis is reinforced by Nunqam’s own declaration towards the end of the novel when he says, “I Dennis Nunqam Ndendemajem, I had been sent to show man his other side, his back side, the side of shame from which everything human ought to shrink” (222).

     To the extent that this is true, I find it hard to agree with Sam Nuvala Fonkem, who, in his review of No Way to Die, holds that there is, on the part of the novelist, an implied “disapproval of nihilistic individualism” or is it individualistic nihilism? Of course it is morally good for an author to condemn the urge in an individual to kill himself. But do not think the emphasis in NoWay To Die is on this implied condemnation.

    Fonkem would have been right if the statement had been made by L.T. Asong the author; it would then have been an authorial disapproval. But we established above that it is a statement made by Max, a character in the book. Well, some would say that Max could be Asong’s mouthpiece that he could be expressing an opinion of which Asong proves.

    This is a possibility. In any case we are not given much help in this direction by the narrative technique adopted by the author. This enhanced technique of interior monologue gives full responsibility to the characters through whose consciousness we witness the unfolding of the story, with total authorial detachment. My stand is therefore clear; the emphasis is less on implied condemnation of suicide than on the inevitability of suicide consequent on the implacability of fate.

    Some reader may feel that there is a fundamental implausibility in Nunqam’s unhappy story in the sense that, as in Thomas Hardy’s Tess. Henchard or Jude the Obscure, he is created to wholly suffer; that the world is too heavily weighted against him. But readers who may be inclined to think so just need to turn and look around them closely to see whether there are no people they know in life who, for no apparent fault of theirs, are implacably dogged by one visitation or the other; people who seem to have been born accurst, to inherit suffering, frustration and death.

    The strong presence of fate in No Way to Die suggests that Nunqam cannot really be held responsible for what has befallen him, a fact that ought to guide our altitude towards this anti- hero. We have arrived at this conclusion not just through a sympathetic rationalisation but through the evidence analysed above; not just through the after- readers-act of reflection but through the examination of the cumulative force of the sequence of instance of destiny. Consequently, I do not regard Nunqam with as much scorn as Sam Nuvala Fonkem does. I think scorn is too strong a word.

    True, Nunqam is a bore, and at times the reader loses patience with him. As an anti-hero he does not take initiative, nor does he exhibit much courage; he inspires neither respect nor admiration; he is generally unresponsive or slow to respond to the good intentions of his well-wishers.

    But Nunqam has a weird prophetic sense of insight into his destiny. After a few personal disasters he becomes certain that no matter what he does or what someone does for him, he is doomed to fail in life. Indeed, so certain is he of his own sense of failure and of the futility of his efforts that Nunqam regards himself as a “bird of ill-omen” that “would never rise above the level of a vagabond, an ex-convict, a dish –washer... ” (222). That is why he regards any effort to help him with a type of stifled cynicism. Whatever he does under pressure from friends he does so as if to say “O .K let me comply just to satisfy you. But know that you’re wasting your time.” And he is right. Yet Nunqam is not mean or wicked to inspire scorn. My attitude towards him is a pendulum swing from slight contempt to tolerance, passing through the middle point of amusement

    This attitude is equally born out of the belief that, without suggesting that No Way to Die is an oedipal novel, Nunqam is a Freudian case in a general sense, and one to be accounted for through scientific determinism. He exhibits all the major symptoms of a person suffering from severe neurosis. That is, he suffers from emotional disorders that prevent him from leading a happy and satisfying life. Though he manages to live from day to day, Nunqam is neither at home with himself, nor with relatives, friends or colleagues.

    Thus he is a classic case for Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. Yet not even his learned friend Max, and much less his family, ever dream that in trying to solve Nunqam’s problems they may be dealing only with the surface symptoms. It does not occur to them to consider taking him to a psychoanalyst who can uncover the real source of the neurosis. Had they done so, they might have discovered that even Nunqam’s passion for art that has been frustrated and now the apparent cause of his neurosis, can only be a socially acceptable behavioural substitute concealing more socially unacceptable, repressed feelings, desires or demands of his infantile experience, now buried in his unconscious.

    But psychoanalytical literary criticism of this nature being essentially speculative, I do not find it very fruitful pursuing this line of argument. To do so may lead us to a facile criticism of Asong for what he never set out to do. Very likely there were no psychoanalysts in his fictional world.

    However, this shows one of the dimensions of Asong’s book, an excellent work of art and a valuable lesson in the painstaking art of writing fiction. True, it is a pessimistic work, but one that, like Thomas Hardy’s pessimistic novels, is very readable and enjoyable. And its readability derives not only from the interesting situations depicted, but above all from the individuals, from the interesting men and women in their visceral responses to the pressure of events generated by their fate and psychologies.

    In Nunqam and Manda on the one hand, Max and Gertrude on the other, we have misplaced partners. In the one couple we have a good wife and a bad husband; in the other, a good husband and a bad wife. We secretly wish they were paired up the other way round. We feel the good Manda deserves a good husband like Max, or vice versa. Such are our wishes. Unfortunately life does not always operate following our wishes; often it follows the course marked out by destiny.

    The novel’s narrative technique of interior monologue also enhances its readability. With complete authorial detachment the technique consists of the individual characters telling the story from their own perspectives, as if they were speaking their thoughts aloud. In the context of No Way to Die the result is immediacy, casualness and freshness, producing rapid prose different from a leisurely and discursive narrative guided by the omniscient narrator.

    European critics have denounced the African novels for their autobiographical, sociological, anthropological and political concerns, and for ignoring psychological characterisation.Without intending to defend the African novels against this criticism most of which is misguided any way, one can only say this: Those critics ought to revise their stand, for, in No Way to Die we have a psychological novel par excellence. But it is simply impossible, in a short paper with an exclusive title, to do full justice to this rich novel with philosophical and psychological dimensions.

    From the evidence analysed above, from the regular frustration suffered by Nunqam or his benefactors in every important move made to improve his welfare, from the cumulative force of the sequence of fateful coincidences examined, and given Nunqam’s peculiar psychological make up, we logically arrive at one and only one conclusion with regard to No Way to Die, and it is this: Only an angel or a great hero, would have resisted attempting to die the way Nunqam did. Unfortunately, Nunqam is neither an angel nor a hero; he is an ordinary human being, and an anti-hero at that. Therefore, there was no other way for Nunqam to die; suicide was the only way to die. Consequently, I would like to suggest a contrary title for the novel: The Only Way to die.


    End Notes
    1. This Paper was first presented at the Anglophone Cameroon Writing Workshop II, Yaounde, on November 2-4, 1994.
    2. Cameroon Post No. 186 of October 20-27 , 1993 page 18.
    3. According to psychoanalysts the most influential part of our personality is the unconscious. It “ contains all the harsher memories of childhood which we think we have forgotten(but they are not really forgotten). Here, also, are our deeply felt secret hates and loves, the powerful but uncivilized passions and desires in each of us. Such feelings are too unpleasant (or even much too pleasant ) to be approved or even recognized by the code under which most for us live” .See Joseph Rosner – All About Psychoanalysis Colier Books, New York 1964 P. 34.
    4. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory. The University of Minnesota Press 1983 p. 179.
    5. See Chapter One of Towards the Decolonization of African Literature by Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Ihechukwu Madubuike.
    6. Linus T Asong No Way to Die, Bamenda: Patron Publishing House, 1993.page references to this book have been taken from this edition.