Sunday, September 11, 2016

Houseboy: Loved It Because Oyono crafts a beautiful, tragic and damning tale (Cameroon, 1956)


Loved It Because Oyono crafts a beautiful, tragic and damning tale about being a "black Frenchmen" in Cameroon.  Indeed, this question of identity is at the center of this tale of a houseboy named Toundi with hopes of assimilation and upward mobility.  With his near to last dying words being the question:  "What are we blackmen who are called French?" one gets the sense that it's not going to end well for the young man.  

And indeed, Oyono's tale runs through the gambit of French colonialism's Potemkin's village of promises as his initial infatuation with French and modernity quickly crumbles under the weight of reality.  Early on he 

justifies his service in the Commandant's house by saying: I shall be the Chief European's boy. The dog of the King is the King of dogs.  It's this false premise that Oyono decimates most pointedly in Houseboy as he takes apart any notion of the benevolence of the French colonizers.  In claiming the mantle of being French, Oyono is imploring his fellow Cameroonians that his fellow blackmen are indeed only animals--dogs--if they accept this rule.  

French Cameroon would gain their independence four years after the novel was published.

*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
**See our 20162015 and 2014 Reading Lists.

For further study:

Dangers of moonshine persist still today in the countryside of Cameroon

Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono
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Last annotated on September 6, 2016
'There is no moon,' said my hos t. 'or we would have danced in honour o f your departure. ' 'We could make a bon fire in the cour tyard.' suggested his wife. 'I did Read more at location 6

felt them all watching me with that look of silent com­ passion which our people can give their eyes. Read more at location 7

For the first time in my life I thought of killing my father. I went back Read more at location 17

My mother came to see me that night. She was crying. We cried together. She told me I had done well to leave my father's house and that my father did not love me as a father ought to love his son. She said that she gave me her blessing and that if ever I fell ill I had only to bathe in a stream and I would be cured. Read more at location 18

My mother often used to say, laughing, 'Toundi, what will your greediness bring you to ... ?' My parents are dead. I have never been back to the village. * * * Now I am at Read more at location 19

like stroking the white girls under the chin with the paten I am holding for them while the priest pops the host into the mouths. The houseboy of a priest from Yaounde taught me that trick. It's the only chance we'll ever get of stroking them .... Read more at location 19

Workers forcing out their tears. You could see their contorted faces the difficulty they were having to· make their eyes wet. Read more at location 23

I shall be the Chief European's boy. The dog of the King is the King of dogs. Read more at location 25

No, it can't be true, I told myself, I couldn't have seen prop­ erly. A great chief like the Commandant uncircumcized. He had seemed to me more naked than my fellow Africans Read more at location 33

I was relieved by this discovery. It killed something inside me. . . . I knew I should never be frightened of· the Com­ mandant again.Read more at location 33

This is a native custom that Europeans have as well, taking something for their hosts . Read more at location 35

Akoma is the chief of the Sos. He reigns over ten thousand subjects. He is the only one of the Dangan chiefs who has been to France. He brought back from the journey five gold rings which the Europeans call 'alliances'. He wears them one on each finger of his left hand. He is very proud of his name 'The King of the Rings Read more at location 40

Mengueme is chief of the Yanyans and is highly respected . among his people. He is the only one of the elders who has survived his own generation. He puts on his chief's uniform when he comes to visit the Commandant and takes it off as soon as he is out of the European town. When the Germans made the first war on the French his younger brother was killed fighting the French. When the Germans made the second war on the French his two sons were killed fighting the Germans. 'Life: he says, . 'is like the chameleon, changing colour all the time.' Mengueme has never been overseas. He is wise without travelling. He belongs to the old days. Read more at location 41

An old man with a humped back and a face as deeply wrinkled as the backside of a tortoise opened the door of the truck. Read more at location 44

The children sang, without any pauses, in a language which was not their own or French but the strange gibberish which village people suppose is French and Frenchmen suppose is the vernacular. Read more at location 45

The Commandant moved about with that trace of self­ satisfaction that belongs to a man who knows he has married a beautiful wife. He was so elated that when he called me he said 'I say, Joseph,' which he has never done before. What a difference the love and beauty of a woman can make in the heart of a man! Read more at location 53

'You're a traitor, M. Salvain,' he said, 'a traitor. Ever since you came to this country you have behaved in a way unworthy of a Frenchman� You're stirring the natives up against us. You keep telling them that they are as good as we are - as if they hadn't got a high enough opinion of themselves already . . Read more at location 56

Then they talked about the need for a coup d'etat to re­ generate France. They spoke of their kings, about someone called Napoleon . . . . Everyone was astonished when Madame Read more at location 57

said that the step-father of an Empress they called Josephine was a Negro. Read more at location 58

'You must be serious. Everyone has their posi. tion in life. You are a houseboy, my husband is Commandant ... nothing can be done about it. You are a Christian, aren't you?' 'Yes, Madame, more or less.' 'What do you mean "more or less"?' 'Not very Christian, Madame. Christian because the priest poured water on my head and gave me a European name. ' . 'I can hardly credit Read more at location 61

How can anyone kill or get himself killed over a woman? Our ancestors were wise when they said. 'A woman is a cob of maize for any mouth that has its teeth.' Read more at location 76

M. Moreau is right. we must have hard heads. When Ndjan­ goula brought down his rifle butt the first time, I thought their skulls would shatter. I could not hold myself from shaking as I watched. It was terrible. I thought of all the priests. all the pastors. all the white men. who come to save our souls and preach love of our neighbours. Is the white man's neighbour only other white men? Who can go on believing the stuff we are served up in the churches when things happen like I saw today ... Read more at location 81

It will be the usual thing. M. Moreau's suspects will be sent to the 'Blackman's Grave' where they will spend a few days painfully dying. Then they will be buried naked in the pris­ oners' cemetery. On Sunday, the priest will say, 'Dearly be­ loved brethren, pray for all those prisoners who die without making their peace with God.' M. Moreau will present his up­ turned topee to the faithful. Everyone will put in a little more than he had intended. All the money goes to the whites. They are always thinking up new ways to get back what little money they pay us. How wretched we are.Read more at location 81

'There are two worlds,' said Baklu, 'ours is a world of re­ spect and mystery and magic. Their world brings everything into the daylight, even the things that weren't meant to be ... Well we must get used to it ... We laundrymen are like doctors, we touch the things that disgust ordinary men.'Read more at location 86

'What are we to these whites?' asked the cook. 'Everyone I have ever worked for has handed over these things to the laun­ dryman as if he wasn't a man at all . . . these women have no shame . . .' 'Shame, you talk about . . .' burst out Baklu. 'They are corpses. Do corpses feel shame? How can you talk about shame for these white women who let themselves be kissed on the mouth in full daylight in front of everybody? Who spend all their time rubbing their heads against their husbands' . cheeks or their lovers' more often, sighing, not caring where they are? Who are only good in bed and can't even wash their pants or their sanitary towels ... They say they work hard in their own country. But those who come here . . .'Read more at location 86

The cook had a natural flair for showing respect. You have only to watch him making a bow before Madame or the Com­ mandant. It begins with an imperceptible quivering of the shoulders. This gradually spreads through his whole body. Then his body as if it were under the sway of some mysterious force begins to bend slowly forward. He lets it go, his arms tight against his sides, his stomach pulled in until his head lolls on his breast. At the same time little dimples of laughter appear Read more at location 97

in his cheeks. When he has reached the position of a tree about to topple from the axe, he gives a broad grin . Read more at location 98

'If I were in your place: she said, 'I'd go now before the river has swallowed me up altogether. Our ancestors used to say you must escape when the water is still only up to the knees. ¥lhile you are still about the Commalldant won't be able to forget. It's silly but that's how it is with these whites. For him, you'll be ... I don't know what to call it ... you'll be something like the eye of the witch that sees and knows ... A thief or any one with a guilty conscience can never feel at ease in the presence of that eye . . Read more at location 105

I went back to the refrigerator and took the opportunity when the Commandant was not looking to spit - just a few tiny specks of spittle - into the clean glass I was filling. He drank it down and put the glass back on the tray without looking at me. Read more at location 108

We have our own way of talking. We ask questions and the only answers are other questions. There was a moment of emotion when we met again with the guard looking on. My brother-in-law broke the silence with, 'Where is it all leading to?' and 'What kind of people are we .. . ?' and waving his arms. There was nothing for me to say except just as he was leav­ ing to ask him the same question. Read more at location 121

There are two places that terrify the natives in Dangan. One is the prison and the other is the has.., pitaI. Everyone calls it 'The Blackmen's Grave'.Read more at location 122

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