Posted by: biblioglobal | February 26, 2017

Cameroon: Houseboy (Book-from-every-country #102)

Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono

Translated from the French by John Reed.

Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono is a short and straightforward novel about Toundi ,a Cameroonian man working in the household of French colonists, focusing on his observations of their behavior. The book was published in 1956, a few years before Cameroonian independence, but seems to be set at an earlier time when the French were getting established in Cameroon. Toundi somehow manages to mostly have a tone of amusement both when talking about unfamiliar vagaries of European behavior (the use of “little rubber bags” as contraception, not to mention the idea of contraception in the first place) and about vicious racism (the country club owner setting dogs on the locals for amusement). As a white reader, I can laugh a bit seeing European behavior from at an outsider’s perspective, but then also must feel ashamed at the terrible racist behavior.  Actually, I was struck by how similar the treatment of black Cameroonians by the white police was to the treatment of African-Americans by white police in the United States during about the same time period. (I’m specifically remembering reading Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King, which is an amazing book that I highly recommend.)

The conceit behind the book is that it is Toundi’s diary, which the author ends up with after meeting the dying Toundi in Spanish Guinea (now Equatorial Guinea).  (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s the beginning of the book). Except , when you learn the rest of the story, it makes no sense that Toundi would have been able to bring his diaries with him to Spanish Guinea. And the book doesn’t really read much like a diary, though it does sometimes jump abruptly between subjects like a diary might. I do think it would have been better if Oyono hadn’t tried to make it a diary, but instead just let it be a first person narrative.

Houseboy talked only about the French colonized portion of what is today Cameroon, but in reading about Cameroon’s colonial history of Wikipedia, I learned part of the country was a British colony. (Both parts had been under German control before that.) It seems to me that mostly the boundaries of previously colonized countries follow colonial boundaries, and that it is unusual for a country to include territory which was held by two different colonial powers. Apparently there is still some tension between the French and English speaking parts of the country.

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Responses

  1. It was an interesting read, a bit troubling though.

    • Do you mean troubling in terms of the content? Or in terms of the writing? I could see both being true.

      • The content. the level of condescension… the writing is a translation, not one that I enjoyed.

      • That makes sense. Though I’m never sure what to blame on the translator and what to blame on the author.

  2. I read this when I was younger. I should give it a re-read soon. Whether an outsider or not, I don’t think the racist European behavior is a funny matter to laugh at… just my opinion.

    • I don’t think racist behavior is something to laugh at either. What I meant to convey is that some of the things Toundi would comment on were just cultural differences where I could share in his tone of amusement about European culture. Then, frequently in the same tone, he would comment about horrible racist behavior, and I would shift to feeling troubled by the racism. The contrast between his tone of amusement and the content of what he was conveying was often quite striking. I think as the book goes on, the tone shifts and Toundi becomes angrier, as one would expect based on his experiences.

      • Gotcha


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