by Corinne Knowles, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa
Francis Nyamnjoh is a versatile author, switching with apparent ease between scholarly and fictional writing. Having been entertained by his insightful teaching, I anticipated being taught by the entertaining Nose for Money. The novel traces the life journey of Prospere, a guileless Mimbolander who engages the reader from the start with the innocence of his internal life in the face of poverty, adversity and the seduction of money. The novel depicts the schizophrenia of an Africa aspiring to be rich, pretending to care about its people, corruptible by power and socialised into binary roles for men and women.
This latter complexity is what disappointed me in this work. The arrangement of women which Prospere loves or marries exposes a kind of misogyny: the author doesn’t allow us into their more nuanced internal lives, and the reader is treated to an array of conniving, unfaithful, materialistic and self-serving individuals who fail to elicit any sympathy – apart from the unfortunate third wife who redeems herself by dying. Somewhere in this process we lose our view of Prospere’s thought-life, as the novel descends into the sordidness of various relationships that are means to selfish ends. Perhaps life is like this, but a writer with such a gift for description and tone has the potential to unmask human failings with more insight. This would provide the reader with the possibilities of both capitulation and resistance, and the inspiration to rise above the tragedy of the fictional characters.
In The Travail of Dieudonne the daily and historical troubles of the hapless Dieudonne are the backdrop for this glimpse of an Africa divided by race, tribe, class and education. The hero and his student admirer are treated with great sympathy, and provide us with a cameo view of a conflict-torn slice of the continent. The contrasts between rich and poor, cruel and kind, illiterate and educated are teased out of Dieudonne’s tragic circumstances, and expose the tricks and treats of fate in the face of physical, emotional and historical disaster. A theme in the novel is destiny, and whether in fact we have the power to navigate our own future. Dieudonne is victim and hero, coward and clown, and he entertains the young academic who finds him, the bar patrons who lubricate him, and the reader who follows his story.