What happens to a colony when its colonizer becomes colonized itself? That’s the question underlying this layered story by Cameroonian novelist Nganang (Mount Pleasant, 2016, etc.).
The second volume in a projected trilogy on his country’s history before and during World War II, Nganang’s richly detailed novel opens with an evocation of that magical time of year when plums come into season: “In Yaoundé, the heart of the country is revealed when the plums are ripe.” Yet the fate of the plum is not happy: So many of them flood the marketplace that at the end of the day any unsold surplus is simply tossed into the street to be crushed by passing cars and trampled underfoot. Just so, Nganang writes, did the country discard its young men when they were pressed into service as riflemen fighting the Axis powers and Vichy France to liberate their Nazi-occupied colonizer. “Yes,” Nganang queries, “was Cameroon going to remain under the control of a defeated country?” The answer, ironically, is that France will be freed from its oppressors long before Cameroon will, even as the intellectuals argue about the status of their homeland under foreign rule—“Even if France has always treated us as its colony, my brother, we are a protectorate, not a colony,” says one. At the center of the story is the poet and bureaucrat Pouka, who silently watches his bosses secretly practice the Nazi salute as a precaution; a spinner of mathematically precise alexandrines, he insists on being called maestro, “following Mallarmé’s lead." For all his fine ideas, Pouka, ever cautious, remains safe in the capital while the younger men in his circle go off to fight, each ending badly: “Hebga ran to where his friend was buried in the sand…chopped to bits….” A nice touch is another evocation, this one of Lysistrata, that brings the story to a close—and now with revolution in the air.
“History is our one true mistress,” Nganang ventures, but that mistress is unfaithful. A brilliant, beguiling story.