Houseboy

After having read Camara Laye’s idyllic The Dark Child, it was fascinating to read Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy (Une vie de boy). This novel is also a product of the French colonial period, this time in Cameroon, but Oyono approaches his material from a completely different and far more critical perspective.

Houseboy begins with its ending. A young man is dying in the jungle, and claims that he would never have been in this predicament if he’d stayed in his own village, far away from white people. The rest of the book is supposedly this dying man’s journal: the book of Toundi Ondoua, translated from Ewondo, his native tongue (and this is only the first of many confounding questions of language.) It is the story of a young boy who lives with his family and his tribe. A friendly priest entices him away with sugar cubes to the Catholic mission, where he becomes a servant and factotum. Some of the missionaries at the compound are generous, but others are cruel, and there is a strongly enforced sense of hierarchy:

I especially like the distribution of communion on Sundays. All the faithful present themselves at the Holy Table, eyes closed, mouth open, tongue extended, as if they were making a face. The Whites have their own Holy Table, set apart. They don’t have good teeth.

After the priest who brought Toundi to the mission dies in an accident, the white commander of the local military outpost recruits Toundi as a houseboy and servant. In this household, Toundi quickly learns to adapt to expectations. If he keeps his ears open, he can gain valuable knowledge. And he makes another important discovery:

No, it’s impossible, I said to myself, I didn’t see right. A big boss like the commander can’t be uncircumcised!… This discovery greatly relieved me. It killed something in me… I feel that the commander doesn’t scare me any more. When he called for me to bring him his sandals, his voice seemed far away, it seemed that I was hearing it for the first time. I asked myself why I had trembled before him.

But Toundi discovers that for a native among white people, knowledge equals power, but power equals death. The wife of the commander begins an affair with another man. The police commissioner robs the people. Toundi is there to witness it all. Eventually they can no longer dismiss him as unimportant; they have to get rid of him, and the book comes full circle, to Toundi’s desperate death in the jungle.

The narrative voice in this novel is wonderfully strong and passionate. This book criticizes the morality of the colonizers — their religion, their sexuality, their sense of order and justice. Those who offer mercy in this book are never white. Yet it’s not entirely one-sided, either. There’s complicity on both sides, and Toundi blames his own gluttony — his own desire to consume the culture of the whites — for some of his agony at the end.

Houseboy is a stronger book than The Dark Child — wittier, harder to read, more complex — and they offer two very different looks at the same time period. It’s worth reading both, just to see the differences.

*Note: all translations in this post are my own, but this book has been translated into English by John Reed.

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4 Responses to Houseboy

  1. Maria S. says:

    Thanks for this wonderful discussion. Oyono’s book is part of a very important category of West African literature: books that reverse the usually position of Western observers and African objects (of travel writing, anthropological observations, etc).
    If you’re planning to assign the Laye novel, I wonder if you’ve seen Adele King’s book on Laye, “Regarding Camara Laye”? I mention her because she’s the main source for the controversy about Laye’s authorship (something also related to the tone and style of the book, which you address here), and your students may run across references to the controversy if they do a little searching on the internet. Forewarned is forearmed!

  2. Jenny says:

    Maria, I really appreciate this insight and the heads-up on the King book. I am planning to assign the Laye, which I think my (undergrad) students will enjoy, but I’m sure they’ll see the stylistic differences. And your point about the position of the observer is well taken. Please feel free to email me if you think of anything else I should be including!

  3. Aarti says:

    This sounds like a very powerful read, particularly because the narrative voice seems so real and present. Great review!

  4. Nina Chachu says:

    I guess you all know that Oyono died on 10 June in Cameroon. Hardly any reports in English though.

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