Review: “An Odyssean coming-of-age” – A Long Way from Douala by Max Lobe

AiW note: Max Lobe was born in Douala, Cameroon. Last year marked the first publication in English translation of A Long Way from Douala (HopeRoad and Small Axes 2021, translated by Ros Schwartz), a novel which tackles important issues such as violence, terrorism, homosexuality and migration, in a narrative where “the sights, sounds and smells of modern Cameroon” flow through the protagonist’s Homeric journey to find his brother.

Alongside this review, we have a Q&A – On translation and his colourful Cameroonian novel, A Long Way from Douala – in which AiW’s Ellen Addis caught up with Lobe by email, discussing the book, its translation and language, the importance of football to the novel, and missing home. This review accompanies the Q&A in its ongoing conversation and engagement with the voyages within Lobe’s novel.

“I miss Douala! I feel as if I’ve left the country!” (127) exclaims Jean, a young man on the trail of his elder brother across Cameroon. Traversing through towns, cities, and unfamiliar terrains by bus, taxi, and foot, Max Lobe’s novel, A Long Way from Douala, translated into English by Ros Schwartz, recounts Jean’s formative expedition from home and into the unknown. The short novel follows Jean and his close childhood friend Simon, who travel from their hometown Douala to the northern borders of the country in search of Jean’s brother Roger who has gone in search of football fame in Europe in an escape from his abusive mother and hapless life. Through a series of sharp and often funny vignettes, Lobe opens a window onto life in Cameroon through an Odyssean coming-of-age story. 

Roger’s quest for Europe is referred to as “boza”, an expression meaning “victory” used by central and West African migrants attempting to enter Europe when they manage to cross the border. Lobe, however, attempts to show that paths to freedom are often dangerous, imagined, and that sometimes the people taking these paths do not want to be found. 

After Roger’s disappearance, Jean and Simon are asked by their mothers to travel north to find Roger before he crosses the Nigerian border. A Long Way from Douala is a novel about masks and unspoken desires. On their journey, Jean tries to stifle his burgeoning attraction towards Simon, the daily news of Boko Haram attacks and governmental corruption are muffled snatches of reality and fear which the boys attempt to squash, all the while, Simon muses on the runaway generation of young men who flee to the Nigerian border in pursuit of a new life:

Roger’s not the only one who wants boza. Can someone explain to us why people are so desperate to go. What are they running away from? Since we left Douala, you’ve seen with your own eyes how beautiful the country is, how rich … but even so, people prefer to go, even if they have to die on the way. (A Long Way from Douala 154)

Through Jean and Simon’s journey, Lobe paints a picture of the beautiful and rich Cameroon on the page. Like a written tour guide, we travel from Douala and through Yaoundé, Ngaoundéré, Garoua, finally ending in Maroua in the Far North of the country, all in search of El Hadj Bassirou, the last man Roger had reportedly seen. The book is noisy, vibrant, and colourful. Lobe uses sensorial imagery to describe places through their inhabitants. While the boys are in the Melen district in Yaoundé, Lobe describes how, “The place is so noisy I wonder how locals sleep. The bars, filled mainly with very young kids, are pumping out the latest hits at an ear-splitting level. Some are dancing on the terraces, their movements very suggestive of making love” (87). A scene of music, dancing, and sensuality, the district splashes in our minds like an ink stain, and becomes what we imagine any buzzing area of a lively city to be.

A map of Cameroon with Douala marked, showing the length of Jean and Simon’s journey

A Long Way from Douala is written in Camfranglais, a hybrid slang language often spoken by young people in Cameroon where English, French and some 250 indigenous languages coexist. The book has a glossary which explains terms in more detail. The Camfranglais language is another ingredient which brings to the flavour of Cameroon – like Lobe’s novel, the language allows snatches and insights into the culture of the cities and provinces as Jean and Simon travel up north. Ros Schwartz’s translation is impressive in its ability to transfer the feeling and culture encapsulated in Camfranglais to the English text as he translates the vibrancy of place and youth culture in the country. Exemplified by Schwartz’s translation, Lobe creates his own language in the Camfranglais which is redolent with smells, sounds, people, and culture: bursting with Cameroon.

The variety of Cameroon is explicated by the rich contrast between the first and last chapter openings. The first lines paint a picture of Douala as noisy and crazed: “Around the Bijou bakery, a few blocks from our house, bars are closing with a clatter of chains and padlocks. Drunkards bleat for one last beer … A hundred metres away, on the main street, the popular Empereur Bokassa bar pounds out the season’s hits. You can hear the distant concert of croaking and the mewing of stray cats” (1). The final chapter, by contrast, is one of wide-open and desert landscapes: “On either side of the asphalt road, the savannah stretches as far as the eye can see. In the distance, we glimpse a herd of thin cows with long horns” (175). The contrast between a geography full of people and one sparse and populated by nature signals towards the diversity of the landscape, the sheer length of Jean and Simon’s journey, and more metaphorically, how much the boys have developed and changed in their pursuit of Roger. 

The novel is written in flashes of the past and the present. Unexpectedly, we are dragged back to the past at distinct moments in the text as we piece together the reasons for Roger’s disappearance: school days with Simon, the rape of Jean’s mother by his father Claude as a teenager, the beatings Roger endured from his mother, the preferential treatment Jean received over Roger as a child. These moments of slipping tenses are expertly worked into the story. The flashbacks show Jean’s process of ruminating on the past and what has led up to each moment and decision. As a narrative device, Lobe fixes us solidly in Jean’s world vision: his biases, his tensions, his relationships. This narrow focalisation is sometimes claustrophobic, and I wish at times that Roger’s experiences and position within the story was centred, especially as the narrative of the novel hinged on his pursuit.

At its core, A Long Way from Douala is a coming-of-age tale about Jean. Beginning with the death of his father – for which Jean feels “not indifference … but a slight unease, and, despite everything, the will to live… life goes on!” – and Roger’s disappearance in the search of boza, Jean rips himself reluctantly away from his mollycoddling mother to find his brother, but also to confront his sexuality.

In one flashback, we see Jean and Simon’s friendship at school which is made up of furtive glances and smiles: “Simon found himself opposite me, at the head of the facing row. A permanent smile on his lips. But on those mornings, I knew that the smile was for me, only for me, because he punctuated it with a friendly, brotherly wink. Slightly teasing. I’d give him a discreet smile in acknowledgement” (158). Throughout the story, slithers of hints about Jean’s homosexuality are fed to us. It starts with intrigue and fascination: “he’s charming, likable, protective” (39), “in front of Simon, I can cry” (25), and then to bitter and cruel jealousy towards the women that Simon flirts with along the journey. One moment in the novel which gives me pause is when Jean and Simon search Yaoundé for sightings of Roger. Speaking in the red-light district to strangers, the pair come across the Gazelle of Melen, a transgender sex worker. Jean proceeds to call Gazelle slurs such as “tranny” and “creature”, taking her gender identity as a point of humour and a weapon to embarrass Simon for finding her attractive. I read this as Lobe’s portrayal of Jean as a narrow-minded youth, but as we are constricted to Jean’s point of view, it is sometimes nauseating. Jean’s sexual attraction to Simon becomes explicitly clear at the end of the novel when Jean watches him sleep naked: “And lead us not into temptation … but the damage was already done, I had already committed the abomination. Thinking about him, I’d jerked off twice in the shower. In fact, I wonder whether he’d heard me come, I’d found it so hard to stifle my moans” (163). Juxtaposing Christian prayers with sexual yearning, Lobe conveys Jean’s primary conflict: his religious upbringing in opposition to his sexuality. The pair’s relationship breaks down when the pair reach their final destination of Maroua, Simon yells at Jean “You’ve done fuck all since the start of this trip … You’re there snivelling like a kid, you’re such a faggot!” (176). The homophobic slur infers Simon’s lack of reciprocation in Jean’s feelings, as his casual ostracization of homosexuality “strike [Jean] like an arrow” (176).

The end of the book comes with some dejection and fatalism. The boys do not find Roger, and their friendship ends irrevocably by Simon’s wounding outburst. However, the sense of loss is softened by a change in Jean. Noticing kindness between strangers on the street when a woman’s dropped money is returned to her, Jean comments: “If someone had told me that that could happen in Cameroon, I’d never have believed it: perhaps because until then, my Cameroon had been limited to Douala” (176). Earlier in the novel, Jean had said that he never understood the quest for boza that Roger was embarking on. But with the revelations of the past and his relationship with Simon, Jean realises that the comfort and love that he had at home was never extended to Roger. In a sinister note at the end of A Long Way from Douala, Lobe shows that journeying can change us, and uncover colours of ourselves that even we do not want to see.

Max Lobe was born in Douala, Cameroon. At eighteen he moved to Switzerland, where he earned a BA in Communication and Journalism and a Master’s in Public Policy and Administration. In 2017, his novel Confidences won the Ahmadou Kourouma Prize. Other books by the author include 39 rue de BerneA Long Way From Douala (published by HopeRoad in 2021) and the upcoming novel Does Snow Turn A Person White Inside? (coming 25th August 2022). Lobe lives in Geneva.

(Max Lobe photograph by Guillaume Megevand)

Ellen Addis is currently studying for her PhD at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Her project is a collaborative doctoral award with Hay Festival researching literary festivals and how people experience literature collectively today.

See Ellen Addis’s accompanying AiW Q&A – “On translation and his colourful Cameroonian novel” –  with Lobe here.

The English translation of Max Lobe’s A Long Way from Douala (trans. Ros Schwartz) is published by HopeRoad and Small Axes. Founded in 2010 by Rosemarie Hudson, HopeRoad’s mission has been to promote new literary voices from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Small Axes, a new imprint from HopeRoad, publishes post-colonial classics that helped to shape cultural shifts at the time of their first publication, and titles by contemporary authors that continue in the tradition of rebellion and contesting the canon.

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