A review of A Long Way From Douala by Max Lobe, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz
Lying on the west coast of Africa, surrounded by Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon is a country of 27 million people about which I’m ashamed to say I know almost nothing at all. After finishing A Long Way From Douala, Cameroonian writer Max Lobe’s debut appearance in English courtesy of Ros Schwartz’s spirited translation, I have, however, been doing some research. Among other things, Cameroon suffers from a form of migration known as ‘brain drain’: according to the IOM, more than 170,000 Cameroonians are currently living abroad (in France, Gabon and Germany for the most part), many of whom are highly skilled. Increasing numbers of people are willing to make what can be a perilous journey in search of ‘a better life’ away from the violence, corruption and economic challenges of the country in which they were born.
There isn’t much that’s entertaining about this situation – and yet Max Lobe has taken it as the premise for a novel that can only be described as blisteringly funny. A Long Way From Douala is a short, sharp and entirely addictive read that explores complex themes such as terrorism, homosexuality, prostitution, religion and migration in a tone that is never anything but light and fizzing, sparkling with wit and the desire to live. To have subject matter and voice so violently opposing is a difficult narrative trick to pull off, yet Max Lobe does it to extraordinary effect. This novel left me feeling entertained and upbeat, yet with the strangely sneaking sensation of also wanting to cry.
The narrator, who speaks to us in the first person, is Jean, also known as Johnny, a young man from Douala whose older brother, Roger, runs away from home shortly after their father’s death. While their mother has always had a soft spot for Jean, she has routinely beaten Roger, and with the loss of his protective father his disillusionment with Cameroon seems to have spilled over. After spending time closed off in his room, ‘alone with his football kings and his dreams of fame and fortune’, Roger sets off for Europe to pursue his ambition of being a famous footballer – as one of his helpers later puts it, in a loaded understatement typical of the novel, ‘“Football here isn’t played the way he wants to play.”’ Yet leaving home without a backward glance is not the done thing in this family. Jean and Simon, an older friend referred to as ‘our brother from another mother’, are despatched by their mothers to the north of the country to bring Roger home safe and sound.
What ensues is a madcap journey through Cameroon, first by bus to the capital of Yaoundé and then by train into the northern provinces, which are increasingly at risk of violent attacks carried out by terrorist organisation Boko Haram. Passenger searches at railway stations and unscheduled night-time stops accompanied by gunfire are described by Jean in a tone that ranges from genuine levity to barely mustered bravado: the true severity of the situation always readable between the lines. Approaching an important subject with humour can be dangerous, but when done well – as here by Max Lobe – the comedy is often far more effective than if the topic were to be broached with the seriousness it warrants. In this case, I was struck enough to want to find out more – about Boko Haram in Cameroon, about the internal conflicts that have affected hundreds of thousands of people, about the corruption symbolised in the novel by rude and spectacularly unhelpful policemen. (On a side note, I highly recommend the heartbreaking film Adú, which I happened to watch shortly after finishing this book.) Lobe offers us just a taste of all these things, but ultimately leaves it in the hands of his readers to go and do the digging.
The approach is admirable – and, I can’t say it often enough, his use of light-hearted comedy masterful – yet I did put down A Long Way From Douala feeling I’d wanted a little bit more. Of course, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to finish a book and wish it had gone on for longer, but in this case the ending was perhaps a little too abrupt. Lobe no doubt has his reasons (and I suspect the comedy was one of them; taking his characters any further on their journey would soon have made it difficult to maintain this particular tone) yet I felt that Jean, Simon and I had just been starting to get somewhere when suddenly we reached the end of the road. Other themes, like homosexuality – Jean is secretly in love with Simon – also require a little background knowledge for the reader to understand their true importance: according to human rights organisations, homosexuals are routinely persecuted and even tortured in Cameroon.
To engage deeply with all these themes in one relatively slim novel would, admittedly, be far too much, and the main subject of migration is one about which Lobe writes very well. Referred to by its local name, we are told that ‘Boza means adventure. A complicated journey in small stages that takes the bozayers from Cameroon to Europe’ – and it is with an almost painful sense of adventure that Jean and Simon set out on their journey; the cynical reader will know that things surely can’t end well. Yet while one character is focused on leaving the country, others have reasons for wanting to stay, and so very often A Long Way From Douala reads like a love letter to Cameroon: moments of human connection, generosity and kindness bejewel its pages, not to mention sensual descriptions of a country filled with colour, beauty and culture. The vividness of each vignette is aided in no small part by translator Ros Schwartz’s decision to leave in many words of Camfranglais, the hybrid Cameroonian language she explains ‘consists of a mixture of French, English, Pidgin and borrowings from local languages’. Although a short glossary is provided at the end, each word is readily understandable from the context and comes to take on a special meaning for the reader. ‘Boza’, for example, could not in this book have been swapped for anything as simple as ‘migration’.
One other engaging element of the novel is the little-explored yet very moving relationship between Jean and his brother. Things have gone wrong here, that much is clear to see, but Jean’s decision to pursue Roger and ultimately let him go is based on a deep, unvoiced love. Jean is ashamed of his lack of sporting ability and the impact this has on his relationship with Roger: ‘Unable to be his henchman or teammate, I was simply his brother.’ What sadly neither of the boys seems to realise is that being a brother is more than enough.
‘“You see things on TV, and you believe them,”’ Simon says to Jean as they are nearing the end of their journey. To a certain extent this is true of everyone – bozayers and readers alike – and it is one of the novel’s most important messages. In writing this vivacious and heartfelt story, with its sombre themes not undone but rather highlighted by humour, Max Lobe gives us a fresh and urgently needed perspective of a country, of people, of the phenomenon of migration. A clever and compelling new voice in African literature, I look forward immensely to seeing what he does next.
A Long Way From Douala by Max Lobe, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz, is published by Hope Road in digital and paperback. Many thanks to the publisher and Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for so kindly providing a review copy and giving me a space on the blog tour.