- 1 Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Oxford : Oxford University Pres (...)
Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo…It must have a social signification1.
- 2 James Ngugi, “Satire in Nigeria” in Pieterse Cosmo and Donald Munro (eds.), Protest (...)
In his latest novel, A Man of the People, Chinua Achebe has delineated a typical representative of the emergent bourgeoisie. If you have read the novel, you will remember that Chief Honourable Nanga, M.P., is the corrupt uncultured Minister of Culture in a corrupt regime of a newly independent African state. In a country where the majority of peasants and workers live in shacks and can only afford pails as lavatories, the Minister lives in a princely seven-bathroomed mansion with seven gleaming silent action water closets. He arranges for the tarmacking of roads, but only when his buses are about to arrive. The ten luxurious buses have been supplied to him by the British Amalgamated on a never-never basis. Elections are a democratic farce in which bribery, thuggery, and brutal force are used, with the connivance and financial backing of British commercial interests, to enable Nanga and his henchmen to return to power unopposed. These, I am afraid, are the realities of the contemporary African scene. How have Aluko and Soyinka reacted to them ?2
1This rather lengthy citation from Ngugi’s study of satire in Nigeria may strike some as irritating – and justifiably so – but it is important that the mood be set ab initio ; important that is, that the ills be called by their names. Ngugi made his study in 1969, at a time when Nigerian society was experimenting with self-governance and discovering the ugly realities of corruption and political deceit. Close to forty years on, the validity of what he said then has not decreased one bit. On the contrary, the picture sits even more suitably on today’s society. It is just as if the further we journey into the future, the further back we journey into the past. Nigeria should be understood in this context more as a paradigm than as a country distinct from other countries. The Nigeria Ngugi talks about can be anywhere in Black Africa.
- 3 J. B. Steane (ed.), Christopher Marlowe : The Complete Plays, Middlesex : Penguin, 1969, (...)
2Literary scholarship has it as a tradition to stress the heuristic drive of all creative acts. Only very rarely if at all is the producer of the text motivated by idle self-indulgence. Invariably, almost in a mandatory manner, the producer’s desire to chronicle or re-enact is fed, sustained and justified by something external to him, quite often a yawning gap in social cohesion, a threatening onslaught of irrationality. It is J. B. Steane who says a work of art should not be seen as an object created in isolation, but as one which reflects aspects of the age in which it was written3.
- 4 Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature, Middlesex : Penguin, 1963, 16.
3We construe the fictional act as a mirroring of an aspect of the societal, therefore real, pre-text moment with a view to impacting on the societal, therefore real, post-text moment. Whether or not we can domesticate future reality is another matter altogether, but it does seem appealing to us that we can dream that reality, wish it, condition it, especially when the ‘causal antecedents’4 negate hope.
- 5 Pieterse Cosmo and Donald Munro (eds.), op. cit., 69.
4This search for qualitative authority over our own future is gaining more and more urgency in today’s troubled environment, and is at the same time ushering in a new, passionate review of the purpose of literature. Where in the past, fiction maintained but a tenuous relevance to the march of society, today it is being investigated for solutions, therapies, propositions, even dogmatic prescriptions. Society is looking more and more to literature for prospective alternatives. It is not enough, Ngugi says, for the African artist, standing aloof, to view society and highlight its weaknesses. He must try to go beyond this, to seek out the sources, the causes and the trends5. In societies where science and technology are either tottering or absent, and with them the benefits of rational empiricism, literature and its offshoots have been known to step in to modulate social action, with myth and drama standing out as elected modes.
5In this article, we look at the attitude of one of Cameroon’s frontline dramatists, Bate Besong (BB), to the existential tensions replete in his society, real or imagined, and the particular therapeutics that he brings to bear on them. BB died in a road accident on 8 March 2007, leaving behind a trenchant reading of the Cameroonian situation. This essay is largely a tribute to his unique legacy.
6For anyone who knew BB the man, laughter was as much part of him as a walking stick to an old man. He laughed generously, laughed loudest in adversity. In a sense, his whole being was encrypted in laughter. BB had not spoken until he had laughed ; for in his expressive register the message was not in the words but in the laughter that accompanied them. If he termed his interlocutor a fool and left it at that, such a person could consider himself as anything but a fool. But if, as happened ever so often, he accompanied the remark with a sustained, voluptuous peel, then his victim stood anointed as a fool. BB wrote as he lived, draped in and inspired by laughter – wry, crackling laughter. Not even he himself escaped the wrath of his own condescension. His last creative act before his passing away he titled Disgrace, and subtitled it autobiographical narcissus. Read cleanly, his whole life, by his own reckoning, was a disgrace. A few hours after launching the book, his head was smashed out of recognition by an oncoming lorry on the Douala/Yaounde highway. There is something about BB’s laughter that marks its object with irredeemable stigma ; something that says change or perish ! His plays dramatize this caution. All of them ring with symbolic laughter which, investigated comprehensively, reveals a charter of prescriptions against moral errancy.
- 6 R. H. Stacy, Defamiliarization in Language and Literature, Syracuse University Press, 197 (...)
7One dominant source of laughter in BB’s drama is naming. Some of the characters’ names elicit immediate laughter by just the way they sound : H.R.H. Baal Njunghu Akhikikriki (Requiem for the Last Kaiser), Samndeng Ngufor Akriye Moghamo (Once Upon Great Lepers), Comrade Dealsham Aadingingin (Beasts of no Nation), Arreykaka Tambong, Rohoboam Ahab Killeran, Gilboa Agulaba Amberetu (The Banquet), His Excellency the Most High Prince of Peace Dr El Hadj Toura Ibn Adu Al Sallah (The Most Cruel Death of the Talkative Zombie). We are here within the Tolstoyan vein of supplementing the lexicon with neologistic onomatopoetic words and phrases, such as ozhig-zhig-zhig (the sound of a sword being sharpened)6.
8Nominal caricature is reinforced by authorial comment. In The Banquet, Rohoboam Ahab Killeran is “a fat, disproportionate and clumsy père” ; Sgt. Agbormbuoh and Sgt. Arrahntohr “cement shirts whose heads are full of alcohol and marihuana”. Domnes for his part “wears a monocle and carries a scabbard. Though a rascal, he is a rather taciturn settler”, and Gilboa Agulaba Amberetu is an “Exterminator at Donkangui Maximum Security Prison”. As for Marechal des Logis Mbozo’o Obadiah, he is a “Bull dog S.S. Gorille of Internal Pacification with rank of Arch Cobra, expected to sing ‘Ho !’ ‘Ho !’ ‘Ho !’ on the day of the Banquet”. In Once Upon Great Lepers, Ntufam Vikuma Egu Eku and Samndeng Ngufor Akriye Moghamo are “Gerontocrat Lepers, un-identical twins”. Beasts of no Nation has its own share of grossly comical characters, not least of which is Comrade Dealsham Aadingingin, “Supreme Maximum Mayor of Ednuoay Municipal Council who is capable of playing the City’s anthem backwards”.
- 7 Lawrence Levine, op. cit., 349.
9All these names and their accompanying elaborations are intended to heighten the comic effect of the personalities of the characters they incarnate, and by so doing place their actions resolutely in a perspective of negativism. The playwright assails in the manner of the heavy-weight champion boxer Mohammad Ali, “a man of words who began to work on his adversaries long before he walked into the ring with them”7.
- 8 Emmanuel Obiechina, Culture, tradition and society in the West African novel, Cambridge : (...)
- 9 D. I. Nwoga, Literature and Modern West African Culture, Benin City : Ethiope Publishing (...)
10Emmanuel Obiechina has done good work demonstrating T.M. Aluko’s penchant for exaggeration and caricature. In particular, he discovers One Man One Wife to be teeming with grotesque characters reminiscent of the Dickensian sense of the comically grotesque8. BB captures and intensifies this satirical tradition, this time within a social context different from Aluko’s Nigeria in time and place, but no less identical in terms of challenges ; for in one place as in the other, the recurrent motif continues to be “the meaning of independence and the attendant problem of leadership”9.
11BB’s proclaimed Marxist orientation forbids him from casting aspersions indiscriminately. He handles the working class and peasants with consummate sympathy, lodging them invariably in the mould of victims of capitalist greed. The Night-soil men in Beasts of No Nation, for instance, are “doomed carriers of mountains of fetid waste of the Ednuoayan City Council”. But there is also A Boy “who screams in the darkness”, a Blindman, and a Cripple. These characters, positioned at the base of BB’s social edifice, also constitute the launch pads for his ideological assault on injustice.
12His elected targets are leaders and their capitalist agents. As we have seen above, characters either in or near the positions of leadership are always treated with scorn. Ugly naming is one way in which this is done, another favourite technique for driving home the satirical intention being suggestive disguising through which names are scrambled, but left sufficiently suggestive to make the original referent almost unmistakeable. Amichive (The Most Cruel Death of the Talkative Zombie) is a case in point. The name that immediately comes to mind, for those familiar with recent Cameroonian history, is Forchive. And just in case there is any doubt in identity, Amichive’s character is fleshed out : “Colonel-Escadron Amichive is the most powerful man in the country – Uncrowned fuehrer of The Chapels, even the Father of the Nation thinks twice before issuing decrees unfavourable to him”(33). True to the grim legacy of the real-life Forchive, the fictional Chapel in which he operates is not a holy place where people go to seek salvation. It is actually a cell, “Cell three […] at first it looks like an abattoir, a killing ground for subversive and incorrigible citizens – This is the Chapel : The section responsible for the breaking of men’s minds and wills through extortion and torture. Here Fear and the balançoire are weapons used with extraordinary skill” (32). The man at the head of this structure of death is called, most cynically, Amichive : friendly chive. In his day, Forchive was head of the dreaded Cameroonian secret police known for its cigar-in-mouth torture and elimination of political prisoners, real or suspected.
13The Banquet provides further instances of nominal disfigurement, with the same intention to excoriate. In the play, France is disfigured into ‘Prancefraud’, Jean-Marie Le Pen into ‘Marie le Guenn’, Charles Pasqua into ‘Caskquoi’, Jacques Chirac into ‘Risky Yzhirag’, and Yvon Omnes into ‘Domnes’. We are told in the presentation of characters that Domnes is “Prance-fraud Envoy in Nouayed, the capital city of Wild Erouncam.” And when we go back to our history notes we find out that Yvon Omnes served as French Ambassador to Cameroon in the eighties and after retirement stayed on as special adviser to the President. As late as 20 May 2008 he was spotted trailing his lanky frame behind the President at the Unity Palace reception to mark the national day. He is credited with most of the controversial decisions taken by the Cameroonian leadership in recent times that all fly in the face of justice and progress. One cannot miss the pun on ‘Domnes’, and that tells of the playwright’s regard for the real cum fictional personage.
- 10 Christopher Ambe Shu, “Playwright Bate Besong speaks his mind about Cameroon political is (...)
14BB’s anti-French sentiments are well-established. Nowhere in his plays is there any indication, even remote, of a willingness to let up the attack on French colonialism and neo-colonial scheming. On the contrary, as in the case of the nominal distortions above, he catches any available means to bring France and its African interests and agents to thorough ridicule. When Toura, one of the leprous troglodytes in The Most Cruel Death, says “deep inside us we hate the French monkey” (2), he is airing a view which carries strong authorial endorsement. In an interview with Ambe Shu, he says with straightforward deadliness : “Both Messieurs Chirac and Pasqua, as I have illustrated in my historical drama, ‘The Banquet’, are the neocolonial vultures of the Cameroonian cemetery”10.
- 11 Simon Roberts, Order and Dispute, London : Penguin, 1979, 88.
- 12 Edward Ako (ed.), Between and Within : Essays in Commonwealth and Postcolonial (...)
15Legal anthropologists tell us that shaming and ridicule are effective ways of curbing deviation11. The twisting of French names engaged in here by the playwright therefore alerts the victims to the need for them to review their African policies and straighten them out. Only then will Chirac be Chirac, Pasqua, Pasqua, and Omnes, Omnes. As has been said elsewhere, “there is here a series of motivated similarities between the world of the text and that of a particular historical period and physical place”12.
16Defamiliarization of language, especially French, also belongs among BB’s arsenal of sarcasm. His attitude towards the language of Molière is forever haughty and deliberately condescending. In his value judgment, French is not French unless it is spoken wrongly. He seems to detect in the language, a fundamental mission to articulate anti-values ; and this mission is encoded in the language’s defilement even by those who are supposed to be privileged speakers :
Toura : Merde ! Quelle est notre nationalité ?
Badjidka : L’abbé, c’est très aimable de votre part !
Toura : Je me suis en colère.
Badjidka : Ne soyez pas si tôt !
Toura : Il y’a trios personnages principaux dans cette pièce. Dans le dernier acte les héros est assassiné (The Most Cruel Death, 5).
17Toura and Badjidka incarnate the two topmost positions in Cameroon’s immediate post-independence history ; namely President of the Republic (Toura) and Vice President (Badjidka). Incidentally, Badjidka speaks good French even though he is Anglophone. It is instead Toura who is Francophone who distorts the language in a manner once again to underline the claim that clumsiness is native to French thought.
18The linguistic gymnastics indulged in above attains its most ludicrous reaches elsewhere in gobbledygook. Since BB’s elected butts are the ruling class, he fills their linguistic mannerisms with tortuous verbiage meant only to dissimulate a basic wickedness of intention, as in this set piece by Voice from Coffin :
- 13 Bate Besong, Requiem for the Last Kaiser, Calabar : Centaur, 1991, 1.
Are you there ? The people understand me, very well. I also understand them. We know what we want. At the Great Gathering, I’ll mesmerize them : Soweto, Falling Cocoa prices in the World Market, that stone country of Butcher dog Botha. By decree number one million and ninety-ten … ninety-ten. I’ll get them where I want (a spitting noise). Take these journalists off and torture them. I am the Consciousness, the Tempo and Heart-Throb of Iduote. The He-Alone and Guide. I am the One-Man-Band … I am the Universal Pedagogue and Pointing-Rod. I’m in all places at the same time (to an imaginary group). Je vous ai compris. I’ll tax them for the air I provide … In this Total Coming, I will be the Alpha and Omega, the last and only pharaoh in Paradise. The history of the historicity of Agidigidi. Tax them for the air I provide … and they know that I can be tough … By decree number one million and ninety-ten … yes … one million and ninety-ten (with hoarse whisper). I’ll be in politics till I die … I give small bouai power…Shege dan banzar … I go come dey Amot, Ma-a ding Sonara money … Oweh, money mbeng. Wa ding money ? Bebele zamba-a !13
19Embedded in all this outpouring is scathing criticism of the system. The voice speaking is that of H.R.H. Baal Njunghu Akhikikriki, Deity of Agidigidi, who in his dementia conjures ribald sarcasm and direct cynicism to lift the lid on the terror that he has visited on his people ; and he does this with a drooling wantonness that causes the laughter to freeze in our mouths.
- 14 Bate Besong, Three Plays, Yaounde : Editions Clé, 2003, 156.
20The macro and micro sites of action are also spiked with metonymic shrapnel. For instance, Cameroon is anagrammatized into Erooncam and Erouncam, its political capital Yaounde into Nouayed and Ednouay, its economic capital Douala into Adoula (The Banquet), Etoudi, location of the presidential palace, into Iduote (Requiem). In keeping with his anti-French temper, he calls Anglophone Cameroon “Virgin Erooncam” and Francophone Cameroon “Wild Erouncam”, and gives Premier (a character in The Banquet) the assignment to clarify the differences in worldview between the two entities : “In Virgin Erooncam political differences are settled by arguments and the ballot box. In Wild Erouncam political differences are settled by the hydrogen bomb and poison”14. What is in contention here are enlightened democracy and brute savagery, and this manner of dramatizing the political question comes straight from the playwright’s pro-Anglophone militancy.
21The end-station of laughter in BB’s drama is therapeutic. We laugh to heal, to shame away ; never to congratulate or encourage. It cannot be otherwise ; for there is precious little in the playwright’s vision of society to promote self-contentment. In a world where journalists are tortured, where the masses are taxed for the oxygen they breathe, laughter becomes the very negation of itself. We laugh the better to cry ; and by a unique twist of emotions, crying becomes the better experience, for it washes away our bitterness.
22Strangely enough, there is very little crying in BB’s plays, only laughter. It is just as if he wanted to subsume one in the other, so that at the end they carry us to the same outcome. The laughter we come across, and which is always plentiful, is never there just for its own sake. No matter how funny an incident or a remark is, there is always a sharp attendant feeling that pain is not too far off. Unlike all comfortable laughter, BB’s own form of the thing is more of a prodding rod than anything else. It prods to reveal, to expose, to make known, and ultimately to laugh to nothingness. It is for this reason that all the characters with any portion of authority over the people are always exposed to the machinery of laughter. And they never come out of it alive, either physically or ideologically. BB’s laughter, it can be said, is a trap into which all steps straying from the right path fall, ineluctably ; a laughter with the power to grind even the biggest monster to dust.