A Long Way From Douala by Max Lobe

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Translated by Ros Schwartz

Reviewed by Annabel

I have a personal goal to increase diversity in my reading and am glad to have discovered the indie publisher HopeRoad. Founded in 2010 by Rosemarie Hudson to promote the best writing from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean; themes of identity, cultural stereotyping and disability are a particular interest.

A Long Way From Douala will be the first book by a Cameroonian-born author I’ve read. And what a gorgeous cover Lobe’s second novel has—although I must admit–I was slightly worried about the football at first. Cameroon’s football team is the most successful in Africa, reaching the World Cup finals many times, and I’m not known for my love of the sport – writing a Brazilian reading list as an antidote to the 2014 tournament here! The football is secondary but does provide the driver for the dream of escape to better things for young Cameroonian players.

The novel is narrated by Jean, a student, who is at home in the Douala suburbs, still up near midnight revising for his exams in the bedroom he shares with his sleeping older brother Roger who is football mad. A shriek! They find their mother hysterical, shouting at their father Claude to stand up. He has clearly had a massive stroke, but their mother is rubbing precious blessed olive oil into him believing that her ministrations and Yésu Christo will revive him. Eventually they persuade her to get him into a taxi to go to hospital, but he dies.

We step a few weeks back in time to meet the family properly. A party is being held to celebrate number one son Roger’s attainment of his school certificate on the fourth attempt, his only skill being football. Jean, at seventeen has also just passed his baccalaureate, but that’s not the major cause for celebration that night, despite Jean, ‘Choupi’, being his mother’s favourite. All their friend and neighbours are invited, including Simon, the boys’ ‘brother-from-another-mother’. When the party turns from celebrating Roger to Jean, both his Pa and Roger are upset. This event cements the need for escape in Roger’s mind, to get to Europe to play football, to go boza.

So, after their father dies, Roger runs away. It’s a long, complicated and potentially dangerous journey up country to the Nigerian border where young men going boza can cross, going through areas controlled by Boko Haram.

Jean and Simon decide to follow in his footsteps to bring him back before he leaves the country, and the novel becomes a road trip. It is an experience for both young men, who will discover much about their own country as well as themselves on the journey. They will travel from town to town squashed onto overcrowded, hot buses, whose timetables are vague, trains which worriedly stop in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. As they follow Roger’s trail, they meet an assortment of characters, helpful and unhelpful, friendly and dangerous, discovering the value of bribery to get information.

From family life in the Douala suburbs, where children are often still beaten by their parents, including Roger by his mother, to the vibrant towns on the way where everyone is on the make, to the dangers of coming into contact with Boko Haram terrorists in the Muslim far north of the country, we see many different sides of Cameroon in this novel.

Although full of events, such as when the two boys nearly get separated at one bus stop when Simon gets the urge to eat grilled caterpillars, really scaring Jean who is terrified of being left on his own, this novel is mostly light-hearted and optimistic. Jean is a gentle and careful soul, who phones home to his Ma updating her on their progress. In between the legs of their trip, Jean gives us flashbacks to the internal politics of his family life which add to the coming of age journey he is undergoing at the same time.

Ros Schwartz’s translation from the French gives an authentic voice to our young narrator. By leaving some of the ‘Camfranglais’ slang spoken by young Cameroonians in the text, italicized, (with a glossary at the end of the book), it gives the novel more life and an extra edge.

As to whether Jean and Simon find Roger or, indeed, if Jean wants to find him, I’ll leave that unsaid. This very enjoyable novel with a loveable narrator is all about the journey, I for one, didn’t want him to arrive.

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Annabel is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny. A holiday in Morocco is her only African life experience, but she hopes to read many more.

Max Lobe, A Long Way From Douala (HopeRoad, 2021). 978-1913109011, , 185 pp., paperback original.

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