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Book Review:Title:The Travail of Dieudonn 

Title: The Travail of Dieudonné, Author: Francis B. Nyamnjoh, Publisher: African Educational Publishers Ltd, 2008. Reviewer: Peter Wuteh Vakunta, University of  Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

The Travail of Dieudonné is the tale of a triple estrangement. Nyamnjoh’s protagonist is physically separated from his homeland (Warzone), beloved wife (Tsanga) and opulence associated with materialism. The writer adumbrates: "Dieudonné misses his home village to the point of tears…" (153).

Mimboland, his country of choice, is a dichotomized world where the haves and have-nots cohabitate. While Beverly Hills swims in the niceties of life, Swine Quarter-home to the underprivileged-is likened to a "bleeding ghetto" reputed for its "muddy meanders of footpaths and shacks whose walls were delicately sustained by ant-infested wood, human excrement, dog shit…multitudes of rats and cockroaches that celebrated impunity."(149)

Nyamnjoh’s novel is a replica of the socio-political goings-on in Mimboland, a fictional country calqued on the author’s home country, Cameroon, but which could easily represent any African country in the throes of underdevelopment, bad governance and economic morass. The author’s acrimonious diatribe on the politicization of alcoholism is a salient feature of his satirical narrative. While the pauperized masses consume alcohol to numb the pangs of hunger and frustration, those at the helm employ it as a tool to keep dissidence in leash. Dieudonné admits:

There is a strange thing that has gripped and numbed us all since the colonial days. Alcohol. Its presence is widespread. It has invaded and consumed us all, making ash of manhood and nonsense of women who dare smile its way."(90) Nyamnjoh has a predilection for language mixing. His writing technique is reminiscent of Birago Diop’s style in Les contes d’Amadou Koumba (1961). Like Diop, he writes: "I am a nothing man. I am l’homme falsifié par la vérité… " (71).

This sentence is a mosaic of English, Pidgin and French.  All too often, the writer juxtaposes French and English expressions as if to remind his readers that his characters are bilingual individuals proficient in both languages as the following remark made by Dieudonné clearly illustrates: "Nous vivons une terre des mots pas une terre des miracles-We live a world of words not a world of miracles. " (30)

Oftentimes, the writer spices his narrative with indigenous language expressions in order to make the discourse respond  more realistically to the prevailing mentality of his characters.  Dieudonné’s unquestionable faith in providence, for example, is expressed through his frequent use of the Arabic/Hausa expression "Insha’ Allah" (32).

Recourse to Africanized expressions offers  Nyamnjoh the opportunity to shed light on the worldview and thought patterns of  his characters. By availing himself of the technique of linguistic indigenization, he succeeds in underscoring the impact of native tongues on creative writing in Africa.

Pidginization enables him to bridge the conceptual gap created by the use of European languages considered too poorly equipped to convey the speech mannerisms and sensibilities of Africans. The novel is replete with  pidgin expressions that highlight the prism through which Nyamnjoh’s characters perceive reality as the following excerpt illustrates: "Cow wey yi no get tail na God di driv’am fly."(40) 

This text is intriguing in several respects, not least of which is the significance of the act of naming. Onomastics is made to bear a stamp of cultural identity.  As the protagonist points out: "Today I mostly remember that village as the land where each day of the week had a female name and a male name, and girls and boys were named after the day they were born."(62).
By christening his main character "Dieudonné", Nyamnjoh invites an ambivalent interpretation of the nomenclature.

Are Dieudonné’s travails attributable to Providence-a force he fervently believes in-or to extraneous factors against which he is powerless?  Is he a victim of his own foibles, notably, his uncontrollable craving for alcohol? Each name in the text is imbued with some signification, a comment on the name-bearer. Chopngomna is pregnant with meaning. This government functionary is not only a spendthrift but also a compulsive embezzler.

Nicknamed "the man with the bleeding wallet," (73) he "had identified himself with a proud tradition of the civil service, where a goat is meant to eat where it is tethered, and where it is normal and indeed to be celebrated, for someone ‘wrongly’ accused of illicit self-enrichment to put the records straight by declaring: Ces sont les gratitudes et les servitudes de la fonction publique."(73) He is associated with the endemic corruption that has become second nature in Mimboland.

Nyamnjoh’s female characters are given fancier names. The bartender at the Grand Canari bar is branded "Precious" on account of her "slim dark-skinned beauty."(155) Dieudonné has an undeclared lust for her because she has kept her ebony dark complexion intact."(158) In his own words, Precious is "omelette nature."(158)

The telltale sobriquet she has earned on account of the ludicrously small salary she earns at the Grand Canari is "SIDA (Salaire insuffisant difficilement acquis) (159)", which could be translated as Insufficient salary painfully earned. Her boss-the sumptuous amply endowed bejeweled proprietress of Grand Canari is named Madame Gazellia Mamelle on account of her flare for money. She "has a nose for money." (156)

The Travail of Dieudonné is a rap on totalitarianism. Nyamnjoh takes a jibe at Africa’s demo-dictators, the likes of President Longstay of Mimboland. By all means, fair or foul, these lame duck leaders manipulate elections to remain in power in perpetuity. They orchestrate wanton destruction of property and human life when faced with the likelihood of exit from power. Together with inept lieutenants like Chopngomna, they aid and abet dereliction of duty, impunity and the misappropriation of State funds.

Bleak as the portrait may be, this novel appears futuristic. It is a harbinger of good tidings-the advent of genuine Uhuru to Africa: "The freedoms of the future are yet to be born."(163). Dieudonné may be at his wit’s end, he may be an ‘objet’ to be transferred from one master to the other; yet there is hope for a better tomorrow. His faith in Providence is his toughest armor against the adversities of life. As he observes: " The more I try and fail in my attempt to shape my life, the more I realize how my will is but a tiny bit of Allah’s grand design."(163)

Throughout the narrative, the reader appreciates not just Nyamnjoh’s skill at storytelling but also his verve at word-smiting. In a nutshell, The Travail of Dieudonné is a virtuoso art of linguistic innovation. The only problem that the text may pose for a monolingual reader is its linguistic/cultural plurality which requires of the reader to be not only multilingual but also pluri-cultural. But, the novelist endeavors to mitigate the severity of this potential hurdle by resorting to communicative translation all along.

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