Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Houseboy - Ferdinand Oyono

"Brother, what are we? What are we blackmen who are called French" ? Asks Toundi just before his death. It is the question asked a good number of Africans who worked with and for their colonial masters. They learn French and can converse with their masters, be the interpreter as and when needed, and do their house hold scores working for them. Toundi runs away from home unable to stand his punishing father and take refuge in the church, getting himself baptized to Joseph. Death of the father at church made his life difficult, and it was the new father who recommended him to the house of the Commander. His fluent French and learnt mannerisms and cleanliness ( the transformation of the African identity to the European ) had gone well with the Commander and soon he become the trusted houseboy. His dual life of being a French at the house and an African to his friends is an interesting point of observation.

Arrival of the commandant's wife ( the most beautiful women the country has seen) has made the situation little tense. Initially she charmed everyone who met her and made an impression to the locals ( as the comment on her beauty and her style) and the other Europeans. It was her friendship with the Boss of the Jail , turned the situation worse. Often witness to the infidelities, being forced to be the messenger boy between the lovers, Tuondi's loyalty is now under question. The often touring Commandant, indeed comes to know his wife's improper behavior resulting in a showdown. Toundi is suspected to be spreading the rumours , and the act of vengeance by the lady increased, despite the refusal of the Commandant to replace the houseboy. Eventually , they get him falsely accusing him of theft. Arrested and tortured, he was left to none but himself to defend. Escaping the torture and interrogation, he runs away to the nearby Spanish Colony, where he succumbs to his injuries and dies.

Book is written in the form of diaries, introduced by a nameless narrator who witness Tuondi's last minutes and recover his diaries.
"Father Gilbert says I can read and write fluently. Now I can keep a diary like he does. Keeping a diary is a white man's custom and what pleasure there is in it I do not know. But I shall try it out"

This book is originally published in 1956, four years before the independence of Cameroon from French ( in 1960). I can understand the significance of this book, at the time of publication on the lrger scope of colonial Africa's literature during the days prior to independence. It is also evident that this complex social structure of Whites, the in between and Native live a life that are delicate and often rely on mistrust. Cameroon-born Ferdinand Oyono is trying examine these relationships in this very short and straightforward tale. It might also be one of the important book with reference to the effects of colonial rule in the African Literature.

On the other side, reading it now 55 years after its publication, did not create the strong impression that it would have caused then. It reads like a plain story of a houseboy in European Quarters, caught for theft and dies during ( or as a result of) the interrogation. As it is with every colonial states, they learn the language of their masters, and try to imitate them in their own life. apart from the clever use of form in the way of a diary, it does not have anything unique in the narration. However, I also get a feeling that a lot was left unsaid ( we can understand that as it was published when the French were still in power) and those missing pieces reconstructed by the reader gives this small book a larger perspective. Having said that, I can sense the overall importance of this book in the colonial literature of Africa.
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Houseboy (1956)

Ferdinand Oyono ( translated from French by John Reed 1966)

Heinemann

122 Pages
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Africa Book Club, New Times Ruwanda, Wiki Entry

1 comment:

David Rossen field said...

Thanks for your review really like it. Can you please make a plot of the two exercise books?