Cameroon Under Colonial Powers

In a novel full of memorable scenes, one stands out in Patrice Nganang’s unforgettable Mount Pleasant because of the way expectations can quickly have unintended consequences. The scene is late in the narration that is non-sequential, constantly circling back upon itself, slowly revealing major events during Cameroon’s complicated colonial past, roughly between 1903 and the end of World War II. During those years, the western areas of the country were under German, English, and French occupation, all because of shifting events in Europe. As soon as the subjects grew accustomed to one colonial power, the next one replaced it, and the educated elite, especially, were exposed to a vastly different culture. Think of the difficulties Americans have comprehending the differences between German and French cultures. Imagine what this must have been for Africans.

The scene that will so alter Bamum culture involves a German priest, Father Vogt, who believes that if he can tell the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection by replacing the Biblical figures with local names, he may finally be able to convert the Bamum, including their Sultan, Njoya, a Muslim. Vogt has told the Sultan that this is the penultimate story, the “Story of Stories” (Christ’s betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection), a fact that is important because of the Sultan’s high regard for oral story telling. In Vogt’s rendering, Judas Iscariot is replaced by Nji Shua, which happens to be the name of the local carpenter, a scoundrel. The day after Vogt tells the story, that carpenter is discovered “crucified on the branches of a eucalyptus.” This is where the incident takes on unexpected consequences because Sultan Njoya, who was convinced of the story’s truth, assumes that in three days’ time Nji Shua will be resurrected.

“With the zeal of the newly converted, everyone waited three days, staring at the face of the dead man, who, they were certain, couldn’t fail to rise from the dead and complete that mountpleasantalready mythical tableau of his suffering. There were even some so zealous that they swore that Nji Shua’s beard had gone white; others insisted that hair was growing on his bald spot. All these rumors contributed to turning his cadaver into a legend. The wives he had treated so badly during his lifetime declared him a saint.” Nji Shua had been such a reviled man that he paid his apprentices to crucify him, believing that he would die a hero: “Being crucified was the only good thing that could still happen to him.”

Imagine the surprise, the consternation of the villagers, when the carpenter is not resurrected. The Sultan—an erudite man, who encouraged the local artists in their work, who was not only a linguist but also someone who today would be called a patron of the arts—had spent much of his adult life encouraging and supporting an entire community of artists. When he had heard the priest’s story of Judgment Day and then about Nji Shua’s decision to be crucified because of “his deep need for salvation,” the Sultan was reminded of “the illusory depths and false promises of tales. Njoya was disappointed, but he was certain that the dead man hadn’t just written another version of his life, he had put an end to stories altogether. After this, no other story would make any sense. There were no more delicious stories to listen to or interesting folktales to tell.”

Father Vogt fails to convert the Sultan, and the very foundation of the Sultan’s life—his support of a community of artists, his focus on their creativity—has been called into question. He had so revered the art of storytelling that Mount Pleasant, the site of his residence, had been transformed into a House of Words, a House of Stories, even the Palace of All Possible Dreams; he had delighted in studying local languages and those of the colonial powers, even insisted that some of Europe’s great literary works be read to him aloud. But the day he realized that the dead man had not been resurrected, “He had come through the world’s stories and discovered that the only thing that remained was the palpable reality of the present, all stories being but the prologue to life.”

And, yet, the Sultan’s transformation is only one thread of Nganang’s mesmerizing Mount Pleasant, which is as much as anything the story of a ninety-year-old woman, named Sara, who was born a slave, and became part of the Sultan’s inner court, but only after she took on the guise of a young boy. The narrator of her story is a female American student, of Cameroon heritage, who comes to the area for her research for graduate work and encounters Sara and slowly prompts her to tell the story of her life—as a young man, named Nebu—but also of the entire court under the fluxiating years of colonial rule. An even more dazzling aspect of the narration is the account of how Nebu takes on the identity of the deceased son of the slave woman who trained Sultan Njoya’s brides (nearly 600 of them). That woman, named Bertha, has the same name of the graduate student from America.

Two characters named Nebu, two others named Bertha, written stories and oral stories, Sultan Njoya and the local chief named Charles Atangame, colonialism and an independent Cameroon—all of these aspects of Patrice Nganang’s dazzling novel propel this work into a league of its own, so different from the great majority of novels by African writers in the past fifty or sixty years. In spite of the incidents I have described, Mount Pleasant is not an angry novel but a redemptive story of Africa’s potential. It’s not an attack on colonialism, but a rich mosaic of one small area of West Africa, one part of Cameroon, where a culture celebrated art and beauty—the life of the mind. Bertha, the graduate student, pulls the incredible account of this community from the memory of an old woman, who once lived as a man. But Patrice Nganang is the real genius here, giving up his gender to his two women narrators, and making their encounter the greatest story of all.

Amy Baram Reid’s translation is superb.

Patrice Nganang: Mount Pleasant
Trans. by Amy Baram Reid
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 369 pp., $26

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
March 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Roberto J. González
The Mind-Benders: How to Harvest Facebook Data, Brainwash Voters, and Swing Elections
Paul Street
Deplorables II: The Dismal Dems in Stormy Times
Nick Pemberton
The Ghost of Hillary
Andrew Levine
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Paul de Rooij
Amnesty International: Trumpeting for War… Again
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Coming in Hot
Chuck Gerhart
Sessions Exploits a Flaw to Pursue Execution of Meth Addicts
Robert Fantina
Distractions, Thought Control and Palestine
Hiroyuki Hamada
The Eyes of “Others” for Us All
Robert Hunziker
Is the EPA Hazardous to Your Health?
Stephanie Savell
15 Years After the Iraq Invasion, What Are the Costs?
Aidan O'Brien
Europe is Pregnant 
John Eskow
How Can We Live With All of This Rage?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Was Khe Sanh a Win or a Loss?
Dan Corjescu
The Man Who Should Be Dead
Howard Lisnoff
The Bone Spur in Chief
Brian Cloughley
Hitler and the Poisoning of the British Public
Brett Wilkins
Trump Touts $12.5B Saudi Arms Sale as US Support for Yemen War Literally Fuels Atrocities
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraqi Landscapes: the Path of Martyrs
Brian Saady
The War On Drugs Is Far Deadlier Than Most People Realize
Stephen Cooper
Battling the Death Penalty With James Baldwin
CJ Hopkins
Then They Came for the Globalists
Philip Doe
In Colorado, See How They Run After the Fracking Dollars
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Armed Propaganda
Binoy Kampmark
John Brennan’s Trump Problem
Nate Terani
Donald Trump’s America: Already Hell Enough for This Muslim-American
Steve Early
From Jackson to Richmond: Radical Mayors Leave Their Mark
Jill Richardson
To Believe in Science, You Have to Know How It’s Done
Ralph Nader
Ten Million Americans Could Bring H.R. 676 into Reality Land—Relief for Anxiety, Dread and Fear
Sam Pizzigati
Billionaires Won’t Save the World, Just Look at Elon Musk
Sergio Avila
Don’t Make the Border a Wasteland
Daryan Rezazad
Denial of Climate Change is Not the Problem
Ron Jacobs
Flashing for the Refugees on the Unarmed Road of Flight
Missy Comley Beattie
The Age of Absurdities and Atrocities
George Wuerthner
Isle Royale: Manage for Wilderness Not Wolves
George Payne
Pompeo Should Call the Dogs Off of WikiLeaks
Russell Mokhiber
Study Finds Single Payer Viable in 2018 Elections
Franklin Lamb
Despite Claims, Israel-Hezbollah War is Unlikely
Montana Wilderness Association Dishonors Its Past
Elizabeth “Liz” Hawkins, RN
Nurses Are Calling #TimesUp on Domestic Abuse
Paul Buhle
A Caribbean Giant Passes: Wilson Harris, RIP
Mel Gurtov
A Blank Check for Repression? A Saudi Leader Visits Washington
Seth Sandronsky
Hoop schemes: Sacramento’s corporate bid for an NBA All-Star Game
Louis Proyect
The French Malaise, Now and Then
David Yearsley
Bach and the Erotics of Spring