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The Crown of Thorns

Friday 17 July 2009, author(s)-editor(s) Linus Asong

Chief Nchindia held the Elders of his Council in total contempt, inwardly vowing to disagree with them at every point where disagreement was possible. What starts like a big joke develops into grim tragedy: the statue of the god of Nkokonoko Small Monje is discovered to have been stolen and sold to a white man! The tradition demands instant execution of the culprits. Was their Chief involved in the theft? What was worse, the crime or the punishment?

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ISBN 9789956558568 | 242 pages | 203 x 127 mm | 2009 | Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon | Paperback

6 Book Reviews

  • Review: The Crown of Thorns 17 July 2009 09:33, author(s)-editor(s) Professor Richard Bjornson, Ohio State University

    There is a certain self-assured confidence in Asong’s handling of plot and characterization that usually goes with maturity and experience. We are not surprised by events and their outcome, we are carefully prepared and everything moves on towards an almost inevitable climax of horror.

    Professor Richard Bjornson, Ohio State University

    Source: www.africanbookscollective.com

  • Review: The Crown of Thorns 17 July 2009 09:35, author(s)-editor(s) Professor Rudy Wiebe, University of Alberta

    Asong’s sense of the human predicament is astounding.... It is above all, the story of guilt in a world ridden with self-interest.

    Professor Rudy Wiebe, University of Alberta

    Source: www.africanbookscollective.com

  • Review: The Crown of Thorns 17 July 2009 09:36, author(s)-editor(s) Stephen Arnold, University of Alberta

    There is no such thing as victory, only self-deceit, self-defeat and resignation. The inevitability of doom rises to blood-curdling proportions in this first novel. Read it and read it again. It has a message for man in a century as perilous as this!

    Stephen Arnold, University of Alberta

    Source: www.africanbookscollective.com

  • Review: The Crown of Thorns 17 July 2009 09:37, author(s)-editor(s) Douglas Killam, University of Guelph

    We discern something irresistible in the author’s style, his sense of structure, and crisp characterization, something that makes it impossible for you to stop reading until you have turned the last page. And then you realize with great satisfaction that it’s a whole new world you’ve been through.

    Douglas Killam, University of Guelph

    Source: www.africanbookscollective.com

  • The Crown of Thorns 12 March 2010 12:51, author(s)-editor(s) Dr. Emmanuel Fru Doh

     Kudos to Asong Linus Tongwo on the publication of The Crown of Thorns. This venture, above all, is a reassurance that the Cameroonian academic scene, especially the Anglophone dimension, is undergoing a transformation for good; a transformation triggered by determined writers like Kenjo Jumbam, Bole Butake and Bate Besong, to name just a few. Today, Asong is another name. There is hope, and one needs no other proof that the age of lethargy and nonchalance, with sycophancy, green, red and transparent bottles for literary landmarks, is on the wane.

     The Crown of Thorns is an authoritative novel thematically and stylistically astounding, so full of verve that like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, transforms the reader into a guest (in the world of Nkokonoko Small Monje), who cannot choose but read on. The world of The Crown of Thorns is certainly shocking, for Part I flings the reader into contact with a reality which is almost incredible: a society tortured by disorder. The supreme deity of Nkonoko Small Monje, Akeukeuor has been stolen and news has reached the unsuspecting villagers. As they set out to identify the culprits, things move from bad to worse with Achiebefuo killing himself and so bringing Goment – the District Officer – and six other elders, Chief Alexander Nchindia included, under suspicion. In Chief Nchindia we encounter a Chief completely at war with the society he is supposed to guide. Every aspect of his behavior contradicts tradition: he refuses to drink from the traditional horn of office, refuses to touch the Royal pipe and, as if this is not already abominable, he substitutes his traditional wear – loincloth – for a spotless white nylon shirt, a silk scarf for his neck, and a blue pair of jeans. What tragic alienation for a traditional ruler. One begins to wonder how such an individual was chosen to lead his people. This appropriately, brings us to the role of government in The Crown of Thorns.

     In Nkokonoko Small Monje the D.O., this time an African, represents the government. With the colonialists almost gone, but for the religious, the locals now head government units in the hinterlands. The D.O., Father Preston’s religion and the new Chief imposed on them amount to the crown of thorns on the heads of the villagers of Nkokonoko Small Monje, while the throne and villagers are Nchindia’s crown of thorns. From the onset the D.O. hoodwinks the villagers into abandoning their well groomed ruler, Antony Nkoaleck, for Nchindia whom they force at gun-point to succeed to the throne. We are no longer surprise when in a flash-back as we begin Part II Asong takes us through the installation ritual and we see how tortured Nchindia was by the idea of succeeding to the throne. Unlike his brothers Nji and NKoaleck, he was neglected as he grew up since he was not meant for the throne. But after the tradition of politicians in Africa, the D.O., on the whim, ostensibly, manipulates the situation at hand and Nchindia is forced to take over leadership while the rightful successor is virtually banished and like Moses from Egypt, every effort is made to efface Nkoaleck’s name from Nkokonoko Small Monje. Through such a scene, Asong brings to light the futility in politicizing traditional thrones. The result is cultural decadence since such puppet rulers, like Nchindia, either from lack of goodwill or total inability, ultimately, go astray and force their subjects to abuse their sacred office. The image of Nchindia at this juncture is most touching. He is condemned to be a scape-goat on whom the throne is imposed, and is later on manoeuvred, by the same D.O., into selling his villager’s deity; an abomination which later costs him his life and those of his accomplices.

     By the time one is through with Part II, one can see the hydra-headed gorgon that gave birth to the Nchindia of Part I: the colonial encounter, a sporadically myopic council of elders and above all a political system (if it can be described as such) which pictures its citizens as pawns on a chessboard. Asong seems to be baffled by the wisdom in forcing people to inherit thrones when the result is a raging inferno. Nchindia’s conflict with his people reminds one of Achebe’s Ezeulu in Arrow of God. But unlike Ezeulu, Nchindia was forced onto a throne which he does not enjoy keeping whereas Achebe’s Cheifpriest basks in the warmth of his office and even uses it as a whip to lash his people with.

     The Crown of Thorn is full of leading characters: the priest, Father Preston, bestrides the world of religion, the D.O. that of politics and Ngobefuo that of the village but Nchindia towers above everyone and everything else; even the theft of Akeukeuor is only an item on the list of problems facing him. The three parts of the novel are set in a post-colonial village. Asong’s mastery of village life, although at the level of elders confronted with a series of problems, is captivating, but, lamentably, he denies us the chance of laughing for fear of a character like Ngobefuo finding out when there is such a serious problem at hand. The Crown of Thorns is serious from start to finish. One is nevertheless tempted to question if the villagers of Nkokonoko Small Monje are bound by an oath not to have children for even when they are mentioned they are grown-ups. Their presence, it seems to me, would have helped in authenticating the village scene so well painted by Asong. Asong’s problem is further aggravated by his portrayal of women: they are of little consequences in The Crown of Thorns and exist only to be sent by men like Celina Fay is by Nchindia, to be sold in marriage by men like Anyi is by Anuse, or else meant to serve as dry-cleaners of male genitals as is the case with Chief Fonkyino’s daughter.

     The narrative in the novel moves in an almost alternating manner. The pace in part I is fast, with the tide of events exuding premonitory waves of an impending cataclysm. Part II – a much slower section – through a flashback, reveals to us the very beginning of events which assume frenzied heights in Part I: the usurpation of Nkoaleck’s throne, Nchindia’s awkwardness, the plot and actual theft of Akeukeuor. In Part III, Asong continues weaving from where he had left off in Part I, and quickly brings us to the end of this tragic yet ingenious expedient. We are, however, deprived of the pleasure of once more experiencing African military mannerisms when soldiers encounter their own civilians fighting for their rights; rights from which these soldiers will themselves benefit when they are ultimately – sometimes unceremoniously – stripped of their guns and uniforms. As the military unit is on its way to Nkokonoko Small Monje, the novel is brought to an end. One wonders if Asong intentionally leaves the rest to our much accustomed imagination or is subtly hinting at the existing pregnancy for this novel’s younger brother. If the former is the case, then one grudges him pardon for denying one an exhilarating experience (although we are capable of letting our imaginations soar, thanks to a system in which rumours fire our imaginations) but if the latter is the case, then may many more sheets wash the genitals of his pen.

     The dialogue that ferries ideas befits the characters: it is neither ornate nor rustic but strikes a balance between the two which suits the village atmosphere peopled by unschooled yet experienced elders. The style of the novel as a whole, is terse. Richard Rjornson a blubwriter agrees:

    There is a certain self-assured confidence in Asong’s handling of plot and characterization that usually goes with maturity and experience.

    In spite of this, one feels a bit awkward with the realization a character like Achiebefuo who readily takes his life for being an unconscious accomplice to the desecration of Akeukeuor. Even Shakespeare’s Marcus Brutus who, although misled, joins the conspirators in stabbing Julius Caesar, is ultimately vindicated by Mark Antony:

     This was the noblest Roman of them all.

     All the conspirators save only he,

     Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.

     He only, in a general honest thought,

     And common good to all, made one of them.

     His life was gentle, and the elements

     So mixed in him that nature might stand up,

     And say to all the world “This was a man!”

     (255)

    If this could be said of Brutus who stabbed Caesar last and from the front, then why has

    Achiebefuo who only carved a statue for Goment, to take his life hurriedly without trying to explain his role? Surely, Ngobefuo, like Antony, would have been able to determine his innocence. Achiebefuo’s sacrificial role is, however, strategic to the unfolding of the novel but it renders his character incredible, even if suicide were honourable.

     Then there is the question if all the ado in The Crown of Thorns is only for a missing traditional deity in a world like today’s –aptly represented in Nkokonoko Small Monje – in which the white man’s religion already has a large following? Asong is possibly ambivalent. Superficially, it is Akeukeuor that has been stolen but considering the role played by the political and traditional leaders, Goment and Chief Nchindia, in realizing this atrocity, there is the possibility that Asong’s Akeukeuor is, to say the least janiform: it can be interpreted as the symbol of a nation’s wealth, like ours, which is being tactfully drained by government appointees (the D.O.) with the aid of expatriates (Virchow). This stylistic technique is an armour guaranteeing Asong’s safety from the whims of political riff-raffs who, bloated by ill-gotten wealth, are likely to remain at the superficial level and so fail to unleash Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s zombies for another characteristic man-hunt. The neutral omniscient point of view from which the author tells the story fortifies this position of his all the more because instead of himself, there is a spokesman character, depending on the situation who does the summarizing, analyzing and interpreting of events.

     Asong presents a society which is at the verge of collapse, a society with which he is disillusioned since even the authority is unpatriotic and betrays its heritage for a trifle. If Virchow is white and bent on continuing their “civilizing mission” in Africa, then Goment, Chief Nchindia and the other five accomplices are traitors whose blood must flow thereby reconsecrating Nkokonoko Small Monje. In the end, whereas Virchow the white marauder is repatriated without Akeukeuor, the indigenes of Nkokonoko Small Monje, the priest, Preston, and the D.O. and his family, are reduced to the casualties of the resultant devastating cataclysm which concludes Part III of the novel. But this purgation is necessary, for only those who were away and those yet to be born will now inherit the new Nkokonoko Small Monje after the holocaust, to usher in a new era that will, hopefully be directed by history. The circumstances under which one is living in this country today is no different from what one has encountered in The Crown of Thorns. It is in this light that, their bloody revolution notwithstanding. Nkokonoko Small Monje can be perceived to be Cameroon’s alter ego.

     The Crown of Thorns is an inspiring novel and eye-opener, especially to the Cameroonian reader, written by a master story-teller.

  • An Overview of the crown of thorns and a legend of the dead 12 March 2010 12:54, author(s)-editor(s) Reviewer

    If one can now talk of generations in Anglophone Cameroon literature, then Asong falls in the second and most recent generation, mindful of the time lapse between the works of a much older writer like Mbella Sonne Dipoko and himself. Asong might be young as a novelist, but his prolificacy is certainly alarming. Within two years, Asong published three novels and, true to his nature, a book of jokes subsequently. In spite of Asong’s literary fertility, his portrait as an artist, is yet to be painted. It is in this light that I attempt an overview of two of his novels: The Crown of Thorns and A Legend of The Dead.

     Asong’s first novel, The Crown of Thorns was published in 1990. In this novel, Asong translates into romanesque form some of the ordeals lived by many African communities. When the novel opens, the village of Nkokonoko Small Monje is in confusion over the theft of their god, Akeukeuor. In part II, through a flashback to the logical beginning of the story, we learn of how Nchindia, instead of Antony Nkoaleck, is enthroned against his will, and to Nkoaleck’s dismay, as the paramount Chief of Small Monje. Determined to abscond some day, Nchindia displays total lack of respect for tradition and ends up as an accomplice in a demonic plan originated by the D.O., to steal and sell the village god. The conspiracy is later uncovered by the villagers who cleanse the village and placate Akeukeuor, by killing the chief and the elders who were his accomplices, the D.O. and architect of the scheme and Father Preston, the white priest whose influence in the affairs of the village is hated by the villagers.

     Asong’s second novel, A Legend of the Dead, published in 1991 is a sequel to The Crown of Thorns. A legend of the Dead opens with Captain Abongo of the military contingent sent to restore peace briefing Governor Abraham-Isaac, on the phone, on the situation in Small Monje. With things still confused, Marcus Anuse, a wealthy rif-raf, begins scheming to have himself forced on the people of Small Monje, by the government, as their leader. He blames the entire uprising in Small Monje on the Council of Elders. Believing Anuse’s story, the governor gets Ngebefuo, Ndengwotio and Ntongtong, members of the council who were not in hiding, arrested. From them he learns that the crown, he bangles and the scepter of the throne of Small Monje had already been given to Kevin Beckongcho. Beckongcho, a successful headmaster of Government Primary school Ngeug-Ale in Sowa, is arrested, detained and tortured in a bid to persuade him to surrender the paraphernalia of the throne of Small Monje. His request to see the Council elders before giving in to the Governor’s demands brings Beckongcho face to face with what administration in third world countries is all about. He is shown the corpses of these elders instead, all of whom have been battered to death and dumped in the military hospital.

     By some miracle, the Minister of Territorial Administration, Allo Ndam Garga, enters the scene of events and saves Beckongcho from the claws of the Governor. After V.I.P. treatment, during his second period of detention, Beckongcho is freed to go back and rule his people. At the same time, he is without prior notice, appointed SDO for Bimobio and Small Monje. Sandwiched thus by two great offices, that of paramount chief and SDO, his life deteriorates into a battle field with priorities at war. Then there is the disgruntled Marcus Anuse whose schemes have failed, to content with. Before long, Beckongcho, frustrated by the trend of events, resigns as SDO although it is later broadcast that he has been sacked. The installation ceremony of the new D.O is maneuvered by the arm of fate, and by the end of the day it appears as if Beckongcho has slighted the representatives of the government in Small Monje. Eighteen months later on, Beckongcho dies under mysterious circumstance.

     Writing any work of art is much akin to preparing a meal. For the meal to be palatable, diverse and delicious spices are not only used but the quantities to be used and when to introduce them, are strategic considerations that guarantee the success of the entire venture. Asong’s spices range from plot, language, characterization and the themes exploited; the interaction of all of which amounts to his style. There is the need to explore these aspects of Asong’s writing.

     Asong’s novels, The Crown of Thorns and A Legend of the Dead, definitely have plots, else I would not have been able to give you a synopsis of both novels, as I did earlier on; for plot is the skeleton which holds together a story and gives it a structure or pattern. It is because of the existence of a plot that we can talk of a beginning, the middle and an end in these novels which tell a single story – that of the people of Small Monje. To Aristotle, plot represented a whole, complete action that moved from happiness to misery or vice versa. This is the trend in The Crown of Thorns and A Legend of the Dead.

     Asong’s language in both these novels is simple and carefully conceived not only to suit the speakers’ status in society, but to reveal the hidden dimensions of their personalities. An example of this is found in The Crown of Thorns when Achiebefuo addresses Ngobefuo:

     My first man, I was here last night and also earlier this morning…. The children told me that you did not want to see me, were they talking the truth, my first man? (5)

    What strikes the reader here, is the non-standardized form of English used. Asong wants the reader to know that this conversation is taking place in another language and all he has done is translate. Hence an expression such as “my first man” which means nothing in English, communicates when considered from the perspective of our local languages. Again, from his words, the fact that Achiebefuo is worried and trying to make peace comes to light. Another use of language by Asong which is equally revealing of the status and personality of the speaker, occurs in A Legend of the Dead when Beckongcho is in the cell. Beckongcho is interrogated by one of the detainees, information, all of whom distract themselves by playing the judiciary of this fictitious country of theirs – the cell – which they refer to as Zanzibar. Accordingly, information questions Beckongcho, the freshest detainee amongst them:

     Ya work is what?

     HM. Head Master” he said.

     You pregnant school pikin?

     Beckongcho shook his head in denial.

     You climb man i woman?

     “No!” he said

     You chop school fee?

     Beckongcho shook his head in denial again. (81)

    The language Asong allocates to these detainees is certainly that of a people to whom going to school is an alien phenomenon. Their uncouthness betrays their rustic tendencies. Asong does not only use language, therefore, to give action and meaning to his writing, but also as a technique of characterization.

     Asong’s ability to conceive of and mould character, is remarkable. He is at ease with politicians, villagers, teachers, rogues, priests; he is at ease with society. Ngobefuo, for example, is a stern no-nonsense custodian of the traditional mores of his people. He is the living conscience of the village of Small Monje, such that should Ngobefuo who is responsible for the uprising in Small Monje against the administration when the D.O, true to type, steals and sells their god, Akeukeuor, to a white ma; an uprising with cataclysmic repercussions as it leaves the area without a traditional leader, without the white priest, without the D.O., all of whom are consumed by an active human volcano conjured into existence by Ngobefuo. Ngobefuo is indeed, even to the villagers, synonymous to Small Monje. One would have taken Ngobefuo to be a man of colossal physical dimensions, but he is a dwarf  whose physique, as revealed in A Legend of the Dead, stuns Governor Abraham-Isaac who had the picture of a much bigger person in mind.

     Marcus Anuse in A Legend of the Dead, is another bizarre contrivance by Asong. Anuse is a shameless, selfish, unforgiving and ungrateful individual, adept at outwitting others for his personal benefit. A character born to win by hook or by crook, who climbs to the highest financial rungs in Likume, thanks to his ability to scheme. Unfortunately, typical of such parvenus, who think money is everything, he fails to identify his limits as a wealthy and influential illiterate and ends up deflated of all his airs as he is given a snake beating by the police, before the very people who hold him in awe. Asong’s characters are well constructed: their personalities, speaking generally, do not contradict their deeds and even when this happens, as in the case of Ngobefuo and the D.O., to cite two examples, it is no error but a device employed to make these characters and their actions stand out. From Ngobefuo the village elder to the D.O. the representative of Government, Virchow the Western poacher and Father Preston the representative of western influence and condescending attitude, it is obvious that Asong’s characters are largely representative.

     The strength of these novels lies in the rich variety of themes exploited by Asong, in a bid to paint a true picture of picture of politicians. The D.O. in The Crown of Thorns, in spite of his privileges, suffers from a craving for wealth and goes so low as to steal and sell a village god while to his superior the governor in A Legend of the Dead, accepting bribes is just a way of life. Asong does not condemn politics as such but the players of the game for Minister Garga of Territorial Administration is a saving grace: he is still human, with a head which can reason and understand and is free from the deranging fumes of power. However, Asong seems to be warning against politicians meddling in traditional governments and their activities as seen in the subsequent elimination of the D.O., his wife and children, as a result of his own excesses, by the angry villagers of Small Monje in Crown of Thorns.

     Asong’s handling of religion assures us of the ultimate survival of traditional religion in the face of competition with Christianity. Although Father Preston has converts, when Akeukeor, the symbol of traditional religion is desecrated, a holocaust which consumes Father Preston and his church among other victims, ensues. Asong is telling us that no matter the nature of their Christian affiliations, Africans are Africans at heart.

     Asong may be successful as a novelist, but his attitude towards women in The Crown of Thorns is disturbing. In this novel, women exist only to be sent by men, to be sold in marriage or else to be used by men as gadgets for sexual satisfaction. After all, was a virgin not chosen to “wash the genitals” of the Chief on the first night of his coronation?

     Asong’s story, the themes exploited and the characters portrayed are given a befitting terrain on which to enact their conflicts: a fictitious African country. The setting is largely the village and temporally, the post-independence period as mainly Africans, but for Father Preston, are in control.

     From The Crown of Thorns to A Legend of the Dead, therefore, one can see a gifted story teller at work, especially when A Legend of the Dead is seen as a sequel to The Crown of Thorns. Events take off in The Crown of Thorns, climax at the late end of this volume and in A Legend of the Dead. A Legend of the Dead may be the end of the intended trilogy but hardly much is resolved at the end as there is still a lot of tension and problems to surmount: Beckongcho’s cryptic death, the battle to reunite Likume and Small Monje, the fine to be paid to the government and the manner of raising the cash. This notwithstanding, Asong’s story is refreshing; his problem has not been the beaten path of the African’s struggling for identity in the face of colonial machinations, but a kind of critical self-examination by African’s and their societies at large. In this light, The Crown of Thorns and A Legend of the Dead amount to an authoritative ensemble of beautiful plot, profound characterization, exquisite thematic exploration, appropriate language, and a refreshing structure put together by a confident writer. If I may echo Ken Mitchell on Asong, “ASong is a writer who has to be taken seriously.”