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

Road to Europe a small but remarkable text

Annie Gagiano - 2010-09-01

Title: Road to Europe
Author: Ferdinand Oyono
Publisher: Three Continents Press
Date of publication:1960
ISBN: 9780894105906

Even though Oyono’s first two novels, Houseboy (which appeared in French initially as Une Vie de Boy in 1956) and The Old Man and the Medal (originally titled Le Vieux Nègre et la Médaille, also 1956), are far more famous as early examples of ironic anti-colonial narratives, his third and final work, Road to Europe (originally Chemin D’Europe, published in French in 1960), is perhaps his most sophisticated and complex text. The edition used in this discussion was published in the USA by Three Continents Press. The translation is by Richard Bjornson and contains a detailed Introduction by him; this version was published in 1989. Oyono, who had been a critical voice, later – somewhat controversially – became part of the Biya government in his country, Cameroon; he also served as a diplomat. He died earlier this year, at the age of 81.

Set in the southern central region of Cameroon, the part of his country Oyono knew best, his novel depicts (along vaguely and ironically Bildungsroman lines) the fortunes of a Roman Catholic seminary youth who, expelled from the church shortly before acceptance into the priesthood, has a chequered career of unsatisfactory occupations until at last succeeding in making his way to France. That the protagonist-narrator does see this as a success story and the satisfactory fulfilment of his ambition – a kind of “how I made it despite the odds” story – is part of the pervasive irony of this text.

Chronologically told, this short novel depicts a young African in a society that, like most others on the continent, experiences modernisation simultaneously as a process of colonial cultural humiliation and as an opportunity for self-development. We do not actually learn much about how Barnabas (as the narrator is called) fares once he gets to Europe, beyond a few glimpses we are given on the opening page and later on in the text suggesting that the quality of life there, and the social standing of an African subject in a European country, are all too predictably little different from that which he found on his native (but European-dominated) soil. In view of the title there is little to suggest that Barnabas intends to return from France to Cameroon (where he might then be given a position of higher social standing) as his devoted mother had fondly envisaged.

Barnabas does have a sentimental and exploitative love for his young, beautiful and maritally put upon mother, but he despises his father. It is a feature of this text that, apart from his mother, the narrative depicts not a single wholly admirable person – and in this it presumably reflects an authorial vision that the skewed colonial-racial relations of the time do not allow for either the emergence or the appreciation of human merit on the African or the European side. Road to Europe is, in fact, a highly sardonic text and even (if one tunes one’s ear to its peculiar sarcastic and detached tone) a satirically amusing and entertaining tale; a sort of dark comedy. No one in this environment escapes Barnabas’s mockingly perceptive gaze except his mother and (in some occasional, but very obvious lapses of his usual satirical vigilance) himself.

The narrative is presented chronologically, beginning with a description of Barnabas’s father, “a pious old fellow who […] believed he had sired one of God’s elect” (17). The account continues cuttingly by suggesting that when the old man left his menial employment as night watchman to a Greek merchant to devote himself to the Church and to enter its employ, this not only gave him no greater dignity than before, but “succeeded in degrading him completely”, so that a deformity, “a lump of misery” (18), grew between his shoulder blades. The youthful Barnabas is enrolled in the mission school and once he has obtained his primary school diploma, his road seems clear to employment as a junior civil servant in the colonial public service. This, it seems, is the only sure way in which an African in Francophone areas of the continent can gain exemption from a humiliating system that allows the whipping of colonial subjects for trivialities such as not removing their hat in the presence of a European. But Barnabas’s father thwarts this aspiration, because he plans for his son to become a priest, hence Barnabas’s enrolment as a seminarian.

At the seminary Barnabas later becomes involved in an ambiguous relationship with a fellow student, a devotee of European classical music and a skilled pianist. The priests pounce on and denounce the friendship as immoral (ie homosexual) and expel both young men, who had so nearly entered “their” priesthood, as contaminating and worthy presences. Quite briefly described and with a kind of self-contained, deliberate and tantalising vagueness, this complex situation is depicted as a telling episode in which one strand of meaning is the pitilessly exclusivist quality of a supposedly non-racist but colonial Church establishment. The intertwined ambiguities of Barnabas’s sexual orientation, African perceptions of allowable intimacies between men, and the all-male Catholic establishment as itself so frequently associated with homosexuality, all come into play here.

At any rate, Barnabas now has to seek employment and, reversing the order of his father’s career, he moves from the Church to the employ of a Cretan shop owner. Clearly, in this as in other colonial societies, all institutions – the government, the church and the economy – are in European hands or under their control. If Barnabas’s own name is inauspicious, that of his employer – Monsieur Kriminopoulos – is more so. While in English, and especially American, usage the term for Barnabas’s job indicates a fairly elevated legal profession, Barnabas’s task as one “solicitor” among a horde of competing others merely involves pouncing on groups of bewildered village peasants who come to the city to sell their produce, cajoling or forcing them to bring what they have to his employer’s shop and no other. Barnabas describes these rural folk, half scornfully and half sympathetically, as “a phalanx of simpletons who came to us by hamlets, villages and half-starved tribes; they were frightened and intent on cashing in their harvest or their skeletal cattle and fleeing the town that weighed upon them and filled them with terror” (23). After some time in this demeaning role of subjection to a man who despises him, Barnabas experiences a moment of surreal existential optimism and enlightenment and walks out of the sorry little shop into “the African sun” (23).

Yet his next position is only nominally more elevated than this. Even though he has foolish fantasies that he will be entering “the monied world for which we had the morbid obsession of all poor people” (27), in replacing the expelled private tutor of the young daughter of a decadent French colonial (Monsieur Gruchet), Barnabas will prove to be placed in exactly as ridiculous and humiliating a position as before. Spectacularly unfaithful to his wife with a succession of African mistresses (with whom he fathers many children), the description of the new employer adds yet another portrait to the rogues’ gallery depicting the ugly results of a politically and morally unhealthy situation. The twin portrait (or caricature) to that of Monsieur Gruchet is the brief sketch of the priest who preceded Barnabas as tutor, who appears to have been either a paedophile who seduced his pupil or a weakling who succumbed to the wiles of a grotesquely Lolita-like ten-year-old, the Gruchet daughter. Barnabas, who is firmly ordered by the little girl not to engage in any teaching, since she is already thoroughly versed in all her textbooks’ contents, has by now set his sights on the withered, pious and sexually rejected (by her husband) Madame Gruchet.

Barnabas’s mother is horrified about the danger her son’s foolishly unsuitable sexual desires will place him in, but he cannot help aspiring to what his mother correctly sees as a “despicable role” (28). Barnabas is addicted to the hopeless fantasy of a passionate relationship with the “forbidden white woman” (35), and yet half-conscious of the fact that she either fails to notice him, or simply despises him. He starts drinking excessively to dull his absurd and frustrated yearnings, and his mother (who had been living with him) leaves in disgust and dismay. Yet when his father dies not long afterwards (his burial being another sardonically ridiculous but subconsciously painful episode), his mother returns to live with Barnabas. The young man is entirely aware that, because his mother spoils him, he is unlikely ever to find any other “suitable” woman attractive or loveable. The Gruchets having left, Barnabas shares with his mother his dream of going to Europe; she decides instantly that the elders of their tribe, more particularly the somewhat ancient chief, must be enjoined to provide the funds that will allow her son to go to Europe.

“Thought to be […] transfigured by the scintillating diamond lens of [his ancestors’] glory”, the chief, named Fimsten Vavap, is in Barnabas’s eyes merely an “illiterate, lascivious old man” who is nevertheless able to “transform himself into a formidable preacher” (57). When Barnabas and his mother reach the village, he sees the reclining, half drunken group of elders who are sprawled around the chief, himself dozing in his hammock, as “senile”; nothing about them conveys to him anything other than “sadness and boredom” (58). Of ancestral glories, nothing remains; although the chief’s father had resisted the invasion of their country (at the time, by the Germans), he had been hanged for his pains. When Barnabas conveys something of his impatience and disrespect towards the chief and his elders, however, the old man bursts out in a diatribe against “the youth of today”. This attack on her son in turn so incenses Barnabas’s mother that she gives up on the idea that any help is to be had from this quarter, and they leave. Interestingly, it is the iconic glimpse of “a woman bent double beneath an enormous basket of provisions that she was carrying back from the fields” that confirms for Barnabas the “sadness and boredom” (61) – the words are repeated – that he associates with the village and that solidifies his conviction that his own society is a dead end from which he needs to escape.

Barnabas next pens “twenty densely-packed, handwritten pages” recounting the “story” of his life, which he sends as a letter to the Governor of the colony, appealing for a scholarship to take him to France. As time passes and no reply arrives, he starts working as a guide to “indigenous culture” and “ritual events” for European ethnographers, those men decked out in “enormous pith helmets and steeped in a facile enthusiasm that breaks out in the face of unfathomable darkness like the violent onset of a storm” – whether they encounter (he says) “some poor devil, a monkey, a naked woman, or a madman”, constantly at readiness “to track down a savage” (65)! Barnabas is appointed “official guide” at the Hôtel de France, working with the willing cooperation of his fellow tribespeople, who have “improvised a ritual” (66) that earns them several demijohns of red or palm wine for each performance. Barnabas has an official waiting post at the hotel, from which position he sardonically observes the coarse, beer-swilling Madame Hébrard, who manages the hotel – another colonial caricature of the deserted and humiliated colonial wife, although in her husband’s case the mistresses are European rather than African. Barnabas, in the meantime, has become smitten with the least intimidating (or, as he puts it, the “least indomptible” – 64) of the prostitutes who hang around the hotel for business and he has a short-lived relationship with her, as she soon grows irritated with his lack of sexual skills and adventurousness, and his pretensions to grandeur and futile European aspirations. When this earthy woman shows up one evening as the paid entertainment of the anthropologist who has been employing him, Barnabas decides to quit this job that has been putting him under intolerable strain.

The last straw, however, comes when he overhears Anatatchia, the woman he has been so besotted with, mockingly gossiping about him to a group of other prostitutes. Since his mother has been slaving away brewing liquor for sale to make money for him, he can undertake a bus journey to the capital to appeal to Monsieur Dansette (at the colonial administrative headquarters) to grant him a bursary to study in France. On the bus journey, touchingly, the peasants and lowly soldiers who are his fellow passengers shower him with gifts of money, exhorting him (as one old woman puts it) to “go to their country, become a Commandant, a Commissa, marry one of their women …”, or (as the young man’s neighbouring male passengrer “thundered”) to “Come back and save us like Moses saved the children of Israel from the bondage of Egypt!” (89). However, Monsieur Dansette proves to be simply the epitome of the “intransigence” – defined as a combination of “stupidity, meanness and fanaticism” (93) – that (as Barnabas informs us) he will later, in France, regularly run into in dealings with officials and men in power. To Barnabas’s disgust, Monsieur Dansette wants him to enrol instead in a local trade school and will hear nothing of his aspirations to obtain further education in France.

On the bus, Barnabas had encountered – or rather, been accosted by – a local shrimp seller; an exuberant loudmouth. After leaving Monsieur Dansette’s office, this man (named Bendjanga-Boy), by now totally drunk, picks up Barnabas by chance from the kerbside to share a ride in his hired limousine. Bendjanga-Boy is determined to blow a small fortune on one night of living it up like a European, even daring to go to “zeir club!” (96). In a hilarious scene, the two are (reluctantly) seated in the club’s dining area and are even served drinks, but when the foolishly inebriated Bendjanga-Boy dares to ask for a white woman as sexual entertainment for the night all hell breaks loose and both Barnabas and Bendjanga-Boy have to run for their lives. As luck would have it, it is this headlong rush from life-threatening assault that propels Barnabas towards a sort of “revival meeting” to stir up local people’s Christian commitment to the faith – an event named “the spiritual Renaissance”. The young people who tell Barnabas that “all a person has to do is talk out loud about his sins in front of everybody” in order to “get sent all over Asia and America, just for doing that!” (102) are scoffing at yet another example of the silliness of Europeans, but Barnabas sees here a (literally!) God-sent opportunity. Overhearing someone else’s rather dull confession, he strides confidently forward, knowing how much better he can do. “What a novel my life!” he thinks, already devising “the first sentence that was going to put me on the road to Europe” (103). It is a stylish end to a text that is something of a tour de force; a complex blend of hilariously funny descriptions, mordant satire upon all and sundry (whether European or African); a poignantly sad and a disturbing confirmation of the deep unhealthiness of the colonial relationship.

I think more highly of Barnabas than the author of the Introduction to this edition of Oyono’s text does and regard him as a memorably complex creation – an unmistakably authentic product of his inauthentic place and time. However much of a trickster he may be, Barnabas is by turns self-aware and at times utterly blind to what he is and does. This small text is a remarkable, succinct portrayal, perhaps of the sort of person Oyono knew he, too, might have become.