Cameroonian writer Nganang delivers a modern epic, tinged with liberal doses of magical realism, of life in his country’s colonial era.
Mount Pleasant, in the highlands of Yaoundé, is a story-swathed place where the magical and inexplicable can happen. It is the residence in exile, the Palace of All Dreams, of the learned Sultan Njoya, who has just traded one colonial master for another. “I’m like a woman, and the whites are like men,” Njoya laments. “What can I do except obey?” That note of gender shifting is important, for when 9-year-old Sara enters the Sultan’s harem, its sharp-tongued supervisor, Bertha, inexplicably sees in the young girl an incarnation of her late son, Nebu, and immediately reclassifies her as a boy, something that seems to cause no stir even as Sara is increasingly remade into the lost boy: “Yes,” Bertha thinks, “it was up to her to coat this child’s lips with words of love that would replace Nebu’s tragic story.” Getting to that “tragic story” draws the reader into many other stories, funny and sad and improbable, even as we puzzle out why Bertha should be searching for her dead son in the bodies of young girls. In the end, Nganang offers a fine celebration of storytelling along with a thinly veiled critique of colonialism. Under the best of circumstances, Nganang’s story is not easy to follow; it summons a wealth of African history and cultural allusion that most readers will not have. Still, as with García Márquez, the trick is to suspend disbelief and then some and let the narrative sweep away any scruples. Therein lies depth of observation and precise description: recalls Sara, “She’d hear the syllables of her name ricochet off Yaoundé’s seven hills and then roll through the mud of the valley before they were lost in the heart of the rain, in the joyous laughter of the girls her age.”
An elegantly drawn and engaging world of a sort unknown to most readers—but one they’ll be glad to have visited.