What the Houseboy saw

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oyono-ferdinand.jpgI am grateful to University of Nairobi history professor Margaret Gichuhi for bringing to my attention Ferdinand Oyono's 1960 novel Houseboy.  Originally written in French, it's a valuable and rare document of black perspectives on colonial rule - exactly the sort of post-colonial literature that is unlikely to see another print run and, unless it finds new life in digital form, will bury its insights with its lack of availability in hard copy form.

A quick read - 122 pages (properly a novella by some people's score) - Houseboy is an entertaining, fast-moving account of a peasant boy's employment with a French colonial family in Cameroon and the dismal end to which it brings him.  Nonetheless, I wish Oyono had slowed down the pace.  As credible and interesting as is the voice of Toundi, the protagonist, he doesn't reveal enough truly to earn the novel's sad ending.  

The opacity against which the reader struggles is a built-in limitation to the first person voice; Toundi can only tell us what he sees, experiences and thinks.  The reasoning of the colonists around him is hidden, except to the extent that they unburden themselves to Toundi, which they do not in any significant way.  But Toundi's account - his observations and analysis - are too slim, and the reader is asked to infer too much, to give the conclusion the weight Oyono clearly wants it to have.

Toundi's demise occurs, in part, because he is insufficiently discreet about the affair his "Madame" - the wife of the Commandant - is having with M. Moreau, the prison warden.  Toundi's indiscretion is not a matter of gossiping, but of ignorance: he asks too many questions, he doesn't know what condoms are when, cleaning up, he finds them, etc.  His co-workers warn him:  

Toundi, will you never learn what a houseboy's job is?  One of these days you'll be the cause of real trouble.  When will you grasp that for the whites, you are only alive to do their work and for no other reason. 
(p. 87.)

[B]ecause you know all their business, while you are still here, they can never forget about it altogether.  And they will never forgive you for that.  How can they go on strutting about with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth in front of you - when you know.  As far as they are concerned you are the one who has told everybody and they can't help feeling you are sitting in judgment on them. 
(p. 100.)

Toundi doesn't heed their warnings because, as he rightly points out, "I'm not the only one who knows that Madame sleeps with M. Moreau . . . ." (p. 100.)  

The chambermaid, Kalisia, predicts that Toundi will be punished as a scapegoat because, "At the residence you are something like . . . a representative of the rest of us."  (p. 100.)  But Toundi doesn't listen, and the reader can understand why: Kalisia's explanation isn't enough.

Colonists - indeed, anyone with a coterie of servants - is used to having house workers knowing all their business, indiscretions and moral lapses included.  Moreover, people with servants have to acclimate themselves to the judgment of those who know their failings and secrets.  If the judgment is subtle, unstated or otherwise easy-to-ignore, employers are probably happier; but if the servant is valuable enough, an employer can accommodate him or herself to extremely high degrees of articulated disapproval.   P.G. Wodehouse wrote scores of books making comedy out of exactly this situation.  Karen Blixen understood the dynamic as being intrinsic to the master-servant relationship.  When she is leaving her farm in Out of Africa, she describes the response of her servants as follows:

There is a paradoxical moment in the relation between the leader and the followers: that they should see every weakness and failing in him so clearly, and be capable of judging him with such unbiased accuracy, and yet should still inevitably turn to him, as if in life there were, physically, no way round him.  A flock of sheep may be feeling the same towards the herd-boy, they will have infinitely better knowledge of the country and the weather than he, and still will be walking after him, if needs be, straight into the abyss.  The Kikuyu took the situation [of the sale of the farm] better than I did . . . but they sat round my house and waited for my orders; very likely all the time between themselves expatiating freely upon my ignorance and unique incapacity.
(p. 318-319.)

In short, knowing of a master's indiscretion is not enough to justify imprisonment, flogging and death, but Oyono doesn't tell us enough about why Toundi was less lucky than the other servants who knew of the Madame's infidelity.  He doesn't show us Madame's (or her husband's, or her lover's) point of view to explain why Toundi, especially, was a threat.  The fact that Toundi asked questions and was ignorant and insufficiently familiar with the ways of an ideal houseboy could just as easily council in favor of treating him as a harmless idiot, rather than a scourge to be eliminated, and Oyono doesn't help us understand why Toundi fell on the unhappy side of that choice.

Oyono leaves the reader to infer that Toundi's fate follows from his skin color: that a black servant in the colonial scheme was not permitted to sit in judgment of his overseers, and that the punishment for violation of that rule - even inadvertently - was death.  No doubt colonialism encompassed such arbitrariness and abuses, but colonialism also embodied complex dynamics.  Colonists, as much as the colonized, were humans with ambiguous, emotional, contradictory and inconsistent traits, but too often - as here and in Ngugi wa Thiongo's A Grain of Wheat - they are depicted as cardboard, two-dimensional "baddies."  The portrait is as diminishing to the colonized as it is inaccurate.  Oyono is a talented writer (in addition to being a renaissance man, an actor and a diplomat); had he devoted himself to fleshing out the complex motives at work in Houseboy, our historical record and our literature would have been much enriched.

(Image of Ferdinand Oyono from deslivres.com)

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on January 6, 2010 11:59 PM.

Off-road, unmapped and out of her mind was the previous entry in this blog.

Cover art that cover's the author's ass is the next entry in this blog.

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