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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Dog Days - An Animal Chronicle written by Patrice Nganang

Annie Gagiano - 2006-06-29

The highly sophisticated narrator of this novel, which is a 2006 translation by Amy Baram Reid of the Cameroonian author's French original, is a dog named Mboudjak. The setting of the text is the sous-quartiers (the poorer quarters) of Yaoundé, the Cameroonian capital, where Mboudjak lives with his owner Massa Yo, observing and describing the city's human and canine occupants (among others). Although he opens his narrative with the modest declaration, "I am a dog" (7), Mboudjak is not just a dog, but a philosophical dog. He declares his determination to be an objective observer and develops the ambition to understand human nature in its usual baseness and its potential for greatness. As he says: "I take in the world from below" - this allows him to "apprehend men at the very moment of their emergence from the primordial muck" (29). Because of his engaging candour, Mboudjak soon wins the reader's confidence as a reliable, unbiased and intelligent chronicler of the troubled period in Cameroon to which the text's title refers.

In its original French (as Temps de chien - 2001), Nganang's Dog Days received two very prestigious French literary awards: the Yourcenar Prize (in 2001) and the Grand Prix de la Littérature de l'Afrique Noire (in 2002). It is the middle novel of three about recent events in Cameroon. In its evocations of the city's street scenes, the sense of prevailing poverty and political oppression looms large and gradually intensifies. Not that the novel is a tract, however; its off-beat wit and subtle ironies are evident even in the translated version. In an early passage, Mboudjak expresses his bemusement both at the guilt of his owner's young son (for his cruelly irresponsible treatment of Mboudjak) and at the boy's father's failure to acknowledge and punish his son's misdeed:

Still, each time I see my dear Soumi [the son] scurry off in fear [of Mboudjak's vengeance] as I pass, and his father keep silent before the stench of the crime thus confessed, and all of Madagascar [the sous-quartier where they live] let itself fall into a purr of good conscience, from the deepest recesses of my laughter, a question always pops up:
"Where is Man in all this?"
One question and one alone.
I ask my question systematically, and … I come up with a thesis, an antithesis, a synthesis, and a prosthesis on their daily routine. (3)

As the final sentence in the above quotation makes clear, the author is not above teasing Mboudjak himself, even as the canine narrator conveys his sardonic perspective in the quest to discover where or in what man's humanity may be found. As evident as the humour, here, is the suggestion of allegory, so that one sees in the domestic situation a pointer to what happens (also) on a national scale.

Charmingly, Mboudjak refers to "truth's modest hiding place" (8), as if to emphasise that, as a philosopher, he is not given to grandiosity. One minor character in the novel is a dog who "called himself a communist" - largely as a result of his heartless ejection from the home where he used to live. For all his "bitterness" and outspokenness, this poor pariah ends up (much later in the novel) run over, a rotting corpse no one will even bother to bury despite the polluting effect of the dead body: another veiled indictment of Cameroonian society by the author.

One of the delights of Nganang's novel is its evocation of the language and drama of the streets, particularly the colourful and odd array of insults employed at various junctures. For instance, when Mboudjak's owner is fed-up with him he denounces the dog in turn as a "guinea pig", a "fornicator", a "ruminant" and an "individual" (16)! Of course these terms - particularly the latter - reveal exactly how cowed a society this is. So does the counter-insult of a woman (herself crudely called a "whore" in a quarrel with a man) as she devastatingly (if ungrammatically) labels her adversary "anti-constitutionally", which Mboudjak describes as "the word of the century" (154).

Mboudjak harbours no illusions about human "superiority", either intellectual or moral, to creatures such as himself. Yet he continues to be amazed at the almost complete lack of imagination shown by most people. The source of their power over animals is no secret to him, however - it is just that: the accident of power (mal-)distribution. The parallel in this with the human political sphere is evident: those on whom one depends for food and shelter hold one on a leash, whether one is actually bound or not.

Massa Yo - Mboudjak's master - is an important but wholly unprepossessing character. Pettiness and greed are his most evident characteristics. His baseness is clearly exposed soon after the opening of the novel when the canine narrator informs the reader that Massa Yo's harsh treatment of him stems from the time the man was retrenched from his job as a civil servant. Determined (at least) to continue eating well, Massa Yo now begrudges his dog every morsel the latter consumes. Yet Mboudjak knows that, hard as his lot is in this family, "preparing the canine revolution while sharpening [his] race consciousness wouldn't save [him] from the bestiality of the first hunter to come by" (23). He also knows that men do not like "dogs who think", preferring those that tamely "follow and serve" (31). Here the political parallel is rather obvious.

Gradually, definite allusions to the repressive nature of the Cameroonian regime leak into the narrative. One learns that member of the opposition is a designation that will cow or terrify almost any citizen and that the government's tentacles can get a "well-known member of the opposition" arrested even in Europe; killed, crated and mailed back to Cameroon (73). Yet the novel enshrines one brave, local oppositional figure. He is nicknamed "the Crow" and is feared by the men of the sous-quartier because he sits silently in Massa Yo's bar, taking notes on the conversations going on around him. Yet he turns out not only to be no government spy, but a firm believer in the importance of the lower classes. As proof of his goodwill he shows the bar patrons a copy of a novel he has written to express these ideas - its title is none other than Dog Days! The joke in this is subtler and more sardonic than it might seem at first, for "the Crow" insists (among a crowd of men not distinguished either by signs of political initiative or evidence of philosophical insight) that it is time for ordinary people "to seize history in its creation and put the reins of History back into the hands of the true heroes" (83). The frequently used expression "Cameroon is Cameroon", a sort of verbal shrugging-off of political and moral responsibility, succinctly indicates how idealistic "the Crow's" vision is. When the bullying local police commissioner unjustly arrests not only the harmless local cigarette vendor, but also "the Crow" for daring to defend the latter's civic rights, Mboudjak is the only creature apart from "the Crow" who protests at such a corrupt misuse of power. Mboudjak dryly comments: "I learned that men are not brothers" (100).

Considerably later, released from detention, "the Crow" returns to Massa Yo's bar. "How many have died in prison while you sat in bars getting drunk on indifference?" (113) is his devastating challenge to these men's collective conscience. Despite this humiliating rebuke, when "the Crow" then strews (what turn out to be forged) francs in the air, no one except Massa Yo can restrain himself from confirming "the Crow's" contemptuous description of them as people with more respect for money than for life. Their moral debasement now complete, Mboudjak's earlier question is echoed by "the Crow": "Where has the man in you gone?" (114). These people know that when, because of government mismanagement, men do not get paid their wages, they do not protest against their bosses or their rulers, but instead go home and beat up their wives and children (133).

Very gradually, however, Mboudjak recognises the signs that apathy, deflection and cowardice are slowly transforming into rage. He calls it "the volcanic rage churning beneath the surface of the neighbourhood … ready to explode". But he also, more disquietingly, labels this mood in the streets "a strange insanity" (134). Mboudjak begins to notice more women; he sees their growing desperation and yet "the life bubbling up within them" (152). More and more openly, the kleptocratic ruler himself, Biya, is recognised as the root of Cameroon's decline. Eventually there is an eruption of civic protest. Mboudjak perceives this as the awakening of Man, even in the debased sous-quartiers. Predictably, Massa Yo's cowardice and petty selfishness are shown up as he banishes "politics" from his bar. But this simply means that he is excluded from the life of his people. Similarly but even more glaringly out of place are Biya's henchmen and supporters (the brutal police commissioner, his wealthy prostitute mistress, her daughter and the latter's "boyfriend") who parade the sous-quartiers in white garments, spooky remnants and propagandists for Paul Biya, whom they dub "Father of the Nation" (189). "The Crow", we learn, has again been imprisoned for writing to the President that he should honour his responsibilities.

The protest movement continues to escalate, however. But when the news or rumour is brought that the opposition has decided to march on the presidential palace, Mboudjak says dryly that this allows him to recognise now that "the vertiginous depth of the neighbourhood's misery produced the wildest hallucination" (195). Next, a "banal act of savagery", the point-blank shooting of a child, shakes everyone in Madagascar to the core. It is the police commissioner who shot this child, who happens to be the illegitimate and neglected son of the younger man who marched with the police officer (dressed in white, in support of the detested president). The effect of the crime is ambiguous: it both reminds the inhabitants of the brute power of the regime (which is not about to be toppled) and intensifies their fury. Mboudjak describes it as follows:

The quarter's inhabitants didn't just roll over, though. Even after being pushed back down into the dissolute depths of their lives, they rose up again and rushed down the road with even more rage. They attacked cars … They threw rocks at the police. (199)

It is evident that Mboudjak feels a degree of respect for these desperate assertions of moral indignation and political protest. The scenes take on phantasmagorical dimensions, with people singing that they are about to attain their liberty and rumours that the dead child (who was, in any case, a delinquent boy) has been resurrected.

In the formerly neglectful father of the dead boy this shock has awakened a belated and desperate form of parental courage and fury. He actually (or rather, surrealistically) walks through point-blank bullets to confront the police commissioner with the corpse of his son. Street rumour echoes his words to the policeman barring the door: "I'm bringing a cadaver to the commissioner" - described by Mboudjak as the words of a man who had become a father too late (203). As harrowing as the father's words are, they get a shocking response from the trembling and intimidated policeman: "Which one?" Evidently, the extinction of the boy's life is just one among the many who have been killed in these upheavals. "Like a sinister host, death hovered over the quarters", is how Mboudjak describes the situation (203).

Yet in the street there is also a new form of life burgeoning as people dare to voice the loud cry "BIYA MUST GO!" To Mboudjak, this is the true moment of resurrection and he celebrates it by saying that "right there in the streets in front of me, amid starvation's rumour, amid the angry rumour of mortified Madagascar, Man was reborn" (205). From his canine perspective, it is the dignity of their refusal to remain compliant and silent under oppression, rather than an actual victory or power shift, that measures the reborn humanity of Cameroon's people. Nganang tempers the perhaps slightly idealising quality of this ending by recording a glaring gap in the protest movement's activities. Where is the dead child's mother? And where, by extension, are all the many mothers who have lost their children because of misrule?

Dog Days is a fascinating text, one of many that in more recent years have brought African cities and their teeming life into literary focus. The novel is a wise blend of realism and idealism and its dog's-eye view adds a sense of courage and poignance to the meandering narrative.