NOT TO BE MISSED
"Je vous souhaite la pluie", a novel by Elizabeth TCHOUNGUI
Paris: Plon, 2006. (236p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Je vous souhaite la pluie is a romance with a difference. It is complete with a quick-witted and beautiful heroine, her prince-charming and unsavoury characters bent on spoiling her happiness. All the ingredients of an heart-warming saga are there and the novel is indeed entertaining. But from Elizabeth Tchoungui's lively love-story also emerges a somewhat corrosive exposé of Cameroonian and French contemporary values. The narrator's witty and smooth depiction of life is also a thinly veiled denunciation of society's ills, lack of moral principles, racist attitudes and overwhelming preoccupation with keeping up appearances.
The heroine, Ngazan Ella Belinga, lives in one of Yaounde's overcrowded slums with her mother, teen-aged sister and young brother. Life is tough, money scarce and to make ends meet, Ngazan works two shifts: at night she is a waitress and during the day she runs a "call-box": that is, a stool and an umbrella on the pavement where people can use one of her two mobile phones. It is from this vantage point that she observes the world around her and watches the endless chain of spontaneous performances offered by people inter-mingling.
Privacy is not reconcilable with the comings and goings of such a crowded back-alley, busy with the patrons of its watering-holes, stall holders and passers-by. This lack of privacy often ends up in noisy arguments, and a few disparaging remarks addressed by a taunting retailer can quickly escalate into an oratorical contest that attracts the crowd. But it is neither people's altercations nor the street's hustle and bustle that interest Ngazan first and foremost; it is rather the improvised dialogues of this never-ending play enacted in front of her, day in, day out. She takes pleasure in jotting down the most witty and incisive retorts in a notebook that never leaves her side. And when she is tired of observing the street's hurly-burly, she opens a book and retreats into literary bliss.
Like so many women of her age, she had to leave school prematurely in order to support her ailing family, but the strong interest for reading she developed early in life has blossomed into a passion that provides her with the perfect remedy for the numerous hassles thrown at her. The poetry of 12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam who is amongst her favourite reading and the innumerable books lent by her friend Princess have contributed to forging her personality and to give a meaning to her existence. "In difficult times", the narrator says, "it was none other than Omar who whispered poetry in her ear: 'Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life'". (p.26).
As often happens to avid readers, Ngazan soon becomes an aspiring author and, it is not long before the lines jotted in her note-pad find their way into a collection of short stories. Unfortunately, publishing a book like many other ventures envisaged by enterprising young women is tied up with sexual demands rather than the value of the project at hand and the competence of the applicant. True to form, the prominent director of the unique and lack-lustre publishing house of the region tells her that sleeping with him is one of the prerequisites for publishing her book. "A thousand times, she had heard this tune, two thousand its variations," she says: " My dear, you've got to be docile if you want to pass your exams. My dear, you know that secretaries have to be nice to their boss" (p.35). But she is not prepared to submit to this cardinal rule of employability and, she adds, "I much prefer being a waitress in the Tantine Good Chop's tavern".
It is not the case with her sixteen-year-old sister who would do anything to get a small appearance on the local TV. As the story unfolds, one discovers that delusion is not only entering the mind of would-be celebrity teenagers. It has become an ubiquitous calamity striking not only those least fortunate citizens unable to realise their fads and fancies, but also, paradoxically, many of the select few who managed to reach the holy grail. Princess, drifting on the path of drugs and promiscuity after her arrival in Paris, is a case in point.
After leaving Yaounde, Princess makes it to the world of the rich and famous, but Ngazan soon realizes the vacuity of Princess's life, and the price her friend is paying to survive in the phoney universe of V.I.Ps. and celebrities whose inner-circles are dominated by selfishness, appearances, pretence, back-stabbing and drugs. In Yaounde, Princess was a good-humoured and lively friend enjoying life, sharing her love of books with the narrator and happily chatting for hours on end, sharing gossip and bits of trivia. Now she is running on 'coke' and has been engulfed in a transient universe dominated by money, fatuity and lack of purpose. Not surprisingly then, the famous Parisian publisher she introduced to Ngazan is just the mirror-image of the licentious pseudo-editor she left behind in Yaounde.
Unlike Princess, Ngazan does not succumb to the lure of an hypothetical future of milk and honey and she finds no value in the mirage of a distant paradise. True to the words of Omar Khayyam, she tries to make the best of her condition and turns to the past when she wants to take stock of what is important to her. Independence and pride in her ancestry register high on the scale of her personal values and she acts accordingly. "I belong to the large Beti family", she says, "the lords of the forest who are rather small in stature but big in determination" (p.15), and she draws strength from this knowledge. She takes charge of her life, determined to fend off depraved characters like the wicked uncle who molested her when she was only thirteen, her abusive father and the score of deceptive philanderers promising her the world.
In this context, her marriage with Frenchman Alexandre is full of captivating twists and turns. It has nothing of a marriage of convenience and gives the narrator plenty of opportunity to comment on the ills plaguing the social fabric, both in Cameroon and France. But while both countries often differ in their values and attitudes, Ngazan also discovers that they are united in their parochialism and fear of the "other". Both Ngazan's and Alexandre's families are very slow in warming to the idea of a mixed marriage. With some notable exceptions, people are not willing to look at others beyond the stereotypes attached to the colour of one's skin: for Ngazan's family and friends, a white man represents nothing but a god-sent source of cash, and for Alexandre's parents, a black woman cannot be anything but an immigrant taking advantage of their son in order to escape famine. Ngazan and Alexandre do not fit the mould, but in the well-entrenched universe of idées reçues, it will take plenty of determination on the part of the young couple to convince their respective families otherwise.
This novel, spiced with humour, blends harmoniously metropolitan French and Cameroonian turns-of-phrase. It is full of allusions, winks and meaningful references to famous literary authors and books. But it is also a ferocious debunking of France's myths and complacent attitudes: For example, is it completely fanciful to believe, as argued by Hortense, that "today Condoleezza Rice would be a poorly-paid cleaning lady had she been born in France"? (p.181). Cameroon's mismanagement is not spared either, and the denunciation of politicians ripping off the country with impunity, and police harassing the have-nots, is damning.
Stéphane Tchakam suggests in his review of the novel that the plot of this "tropical fairytale"  is not especially original and abounds in clichés, but this deceptively naive approach to common beliefs also brings into sharp relief an unambiguous denunciation of bias and prejudices. "Freedom is in the mind" Ngazan proclaims throughout the novel, and Elizabeth Tchoungui's blend of humour, ingenuity and literary skills is very effective in conveying this simple, yet eternal truth.
1. Stéphane Tchakam. "Rêves de France". "Cameroon Tribune", 28 février 2006.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities