Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Ferdinand Oyono's HOUSEBOY

This novel, which was written decades ago, is haunting and very powerful, evoking the colonial situation in black Africa in the past. It is very funny and very sombre and sad at the same time. The protagonist, the main narrator is na├»ve and fascinated by the "gleam" of white life and privilege (to use a word - gleam - beloved by the great Ayi Kwei Armah). 

Toundi believes great vistas are opening up for him by being the houseboy of one of the white colonial administrators. The author brilliantly explores the whole scenario, evoking the raw basic humanity in people across colours and race. 

Here we have discrimination, prejudice, lust and infidelity; and the cruelty personified by the police and penal system. The protagonist actually witnesses a horrific beating up/torture by the penal agents that tragically presages his own demise. As Toundi revels more and more in the white man's secrets, he seals his won doom in the process.

For example Toundi is initially fascinated with the wife of his "master" (more of this later) but soon realises that apart from being a mere human too despite her white colour, she is actually worthless and sleeps around extravagantly. Being aware of such a "secret" is of course dangerous though the irony is that it is no secret at all.

When we see Toundi's white master implying that the "boy" smells badly, it mirrors the sentiment of the black girl lover of a whiteman who complains about the smell of her white boyfriend! Being white of course the lover boy is not too anxious to let the world know about his black girlfriend and does not trust her fidelity at all. In the end our narrator finds himself in an awkward situation though in no way culpable: he is arrested by the system and viciously worked over...soon to die more or less like a dog.

There is a memorable passage in this work that reflects how much Toundi initially "worshipped" the whites; when he first meets the wife of his master and she awkwardly shakes his hand. Hear him:

 "I have held the hand of my queen...from now on my hand is sacred...my hand belongs to my queen whose hair is the colour of ebony, whose skin is pink and white as ivory. A shudder ran through me at the touch of her hand...her smile is refreshing as a spring of water. Her look is as warm as a ray from the setting sun..."

The passage is at the same time funny, serious and tragic. It rather encapsulates Toundi as his life hurtles towards implacable disaster...
-         - Henry Ozogula

1 comment:

Eric said...

Yes - satire, pathos, skewed awe etc...a very powerful work which continues to stand the test of time