The human being has always been at crossroads of sorts. Pristine man living and asserting his identity in pristine society soon invariably had to make do with contact and ensuing conflict, by virtue of the simple logic of coming into contact, living, acting and interacting together. Literature, which has man in society as its main subject, attempts at once to capture these individualising and universalising traits, with writers portraying man to be beautiful and self-sufficient in her/his uniqueness, or showing that man, because s/he influences and is influenced by new contacts and acquaintances, can never be unique and self-sufficient entire upon her/himself. Boundless, the novel we are here today to launch is the story of man at crossroads, of man clinging desperately to her/his lost community and to dreams of the past while navigating present day vicissitudes in a new society – at least for survival.
Literary criticism since its advent seeks to define the nature and role or function of the literary work(s) under observation. However, given the presentation frame and the assorted persons who usually constitute the audience at a book launch, this write-up will adopt a simplistic focus: skim through the novel and comment on plot, thematic, character and aesthetic appetisers of literary worth – of course in a deliberately impressionistic style, since – God forbid – this write-up should not have pretensions to exhaustiveness.
Boundless, Kefen Budji’s debut novel is a commendable coalescence of history and art. Its three parts and fifteen chapters structure with action unfolding from 1910 (Chapter 1) till October 1920 – April 1921 (Chapter 15) constitutes 243 pages of a racy, compelling complex of love stories. The historical references – to known persons, events and places that characterised the national and international scene in those days – are at once relevant to the novel especially as background as they are indicative of profound research on the part of the author. The reader moves from Samarah’s remote traditional community to the more exposed coastal regions and even to London, convinced that the writer is or was a habitué of the world scene and a connoisseur in matters of international relations – the Slave Trade, the First World War, the persons who led the various expeditions (battles), the treaties signed and their implications, etc. Part One can aptly be styled Capture and Enslavement, Part Two Adaptation and Growth/Emancipation and Part Three, Return to Roots.
The novel’s setting in time is the colonial, pre-, during and post-World War One days, while its geographical setting is boundless, oscillating vast distances as it does – Chefwa to the coastal town of Victoria, London and back to Victoria, Victoria through Tardu to Chefwa, to Kimbo and back to the coast, the northern part of Cameroon, Garoua, where bloody battles were fought by natives against natives so that the “land could pass from one thief to another” (P 218). Kefen’s story has a markedly linear, chronological plot with progressive dates for each new chapter, reminiscent of the diary technique with its story of the story technique, which leave the reader with the feeling that the writer might be re-casting the entries in a diary while weaving in her own story, with the result of a complex, composite blend, like in Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono. The effect is to give veracity to the proposition that the African writer always tells a story that is to some extent true, or always draws inspiration from what actually happened.
The novel opens with chaos setting and destabilisation of calm and order in ten years old Samarah’s traditional Chefwa community: the “Jaman people are on their way” (P. 3) and Kintashe, the Chief of village, orders that the village women and children be taken and hidden in a supposedly safe cave. He chooses to stay back with his nobles and able men so as to fight and protect his land, telling Yenla his wife that he will not be seen as a coward hiding “underneath his wife’s loincloth” (P 3), which is what flight betokens. This well-meaning plan misfires and the group is captured; some are killed and some others abducted, sold as slaves and transported to the coast; among these latter are Yenla (Samarah’s mother), Samarah and Bintum – the plot thus gets complicated.
Later, life on the Wakerman estate, with its gruelling routines, its injustices, molestations and harassments, the sadistic pranks played by the spoilt Lucy and the overtures of the libidinous, sadistic Grausam with tragic consequences on Yenla’s life etc all prepare the way for Lucy’s contact with the humane Pattersons. On this other estate, a now lonely Samarah gradually learns to overcome her angst, progressively sheds her overriding hatred for whites whom she has seen only in the light of oppressors and grows to love her enemies and emancipate herself from a life bogged down by inter-race generalisations. She trains as a nurse under Dr Ryan and with help from Bessem and Fr Vincent, grows to reciprocate Mayne’s feelings and respond warmly to his love overtures. Finally, she decides to marry him and go on with life rather than continue wasting away in the hope of reconnecting with her first love. Her fairy-tale wedding, blissful in its own right, is ever on the brink always haunted by the disguised animosity of the condescending whites and by the lurking Lucy, who swears during one of her meetings with Mayne in London: “I want you and I’ll have you, or no other girl will” (P 99). When she shows up at the party at the Commissioner’s, where Mayne and Samarah are also guests, she throws the apple of discord and the novel climaxes with Samarah’s escape – unfortunately from her conjugal home but fortunately back to her roots.
The rest of the narrative – Mayne’s long months of pain, Samarah’s re-integration in her Chefwa community now ruled by her deceased father’s brother Kentaw, her service to her community with Dr Worthy’s help, her reunion with her long-lost Bintum and finally with her distraught husband, etc – are all leads to the novel’s resolution, the child-naming ceremony and traditional authority’s blessing and sanctioning of the marriage between the black princess and her exotic white husband. Princess Samarah, in every sense a replica of her mother Yenla, whom Kintashe describes at the beginning as “tigress, … daring and fearless woman, … enchantress” (P 3), moves vast distances and finally reconnects with her roots, thus regaining her identity and giving respectability to her marriage. Truly, a tree can reach out for the sun only by rooting itself very deeply into mother earth.
Boundless revisits the oft-addressed theme of culture contact and conflict in its own fresh, delectable style. Yet it also gives us glimpses of the African personality, who existed before the coming of the whites, giving the lie to the Eurocentric idea that Africa was complete darkness without a glorious past of its own. The novel demonstrates how an oppressed people resisted, perished, confronted the loss of their world and adapted to the injustices and rigours of a new society; it is therefore about man’s resilience and mutability in the face of vicissitudes. What is new in a novel that revisits a rather over-worked theme, one may be tempted to ask? Its novelty draws sustenance from the complex love stories it tells and the doctrine of hybridism it preaches in an era when mere thought or mention of it would have been considered lese majesty in many contexts.
On the one hand, it is the love story between the headstrong, determined and self-opinionated Samarah and the debonair, humane white, Mayne, in a context where race hate is heightened, a dramatisation of hate-love which blossoms and blooms into an eloquent statement, shattering the myth of white superiority and the stereotype that blacks and whites do not fall in love with each other and cannot marry – as Samarah points out to Mayne (P 129). On the other, it is the star-crossed love relationship between Samarah and Bintum, her boon companion in the days of innocent bliss and her spouse by the token of a childhood engagement. Samarah and Bintum share a common destiny as victims uprooted from their land and forced to settle in different worlds with engagements that turn out to be preposterous, even suicidal but also rewarding in their own exotic way. This fated love story nevertheless triumphs, even if the Sam-Mayne conjugal match lives on at the end; as Bintum aptly notes, it is at once undying love for one another at the physical level as well as love for their common fatherland – which only the two of them share, given especially their provenance and the road of pain they have travelled together (experiences she does not and cannot share even with her darling Mayne, thus considered as sacred or sacrosanct to the two). The character creations in Kefen’s novel are indeed as complex as they are exciting.
Boundless therefore richly explores and vividly dramatises the lows and highs and the pains and gains of members of a community caught in a concatenation, nay, a spiral of violent happenings – contact, change, death, exile, further death and estrangement, etc. It broaches those myriad issues that have impacted on and continue to impact on vulnerable community life, some threatening to tear it at its seams: instability, childhood engagements, violent contact and violent conflicts, forceful removal, male dominance and female marginalization, the will to power, the resilience of the human spirit, compatibility in marriage, empowerment, man’s relationship with his ancestors gone to the fore, the place of the Supreme Being in the scheme of things, etc. The novel robustly highlights and boldly resolves the challenges that face the members of this community when marauding colonisers, helped by condoning indigenes, wreck and despoil their stable community, leaving them with a web of choice-in-life quandaries that haunt their existence in a now turbulent new world: slave labour, education, creating acquaintanceships and lasting relationships, etc, with corollary social chitchat forming its realistic background. It is a novel about change – violent change, the kind the members of the victimised community cannot control, but also about change that must come from within the community thanks to education, emancipation, globalisation, etc. In the latter case, Chief Kentaw admonishes Samarah whose brief stay in the village is already being seen as a threat by male chauvinists: “Change will come, my child, but it is a gradual process…” (P 210).
Maybe, as an afterthought, it should be added that the novel does not lose one bit of its relevance because its subject matter is love, which many would be quick to criticise in our African context with its plethora of man-made ills and vices. Suffice it to point out that Boundless spans the period between 1910 and 1921, surely because the author decides that a debut novel introducing her to the world should be an exploration of the historical past of her people and an introduction of contemporary trends in that remote context would have been sort of anachronistic. Hopefully, her subsequent novels should build up from where Boundless ends and build up to contemporary times. Nevertheless, it should be rationalised that the “function-of-art” swipes of aggressive Marxist critics who would immediately attack that “the novel does not carry a readily perceptible political punch” do not always appeal because there are a plethora of approaches to art other than the Marxist approach. Professor Ambanasom appeals in his preface to the revised edition of Homage and Courtship (2009) for allowance to be made for co-existence in the literary world of both radical visionaries and literary humanists. A word should now be said about the character creations in the novel.
One of the strengths of Kefen Budji’s novel is the depth of its characterisation. Characterisation, by Kolo Omotoso’s definition in The Form of the African Novel, the transformation of homo sapiens to homo fictus or simply, the transfer of characters from their real life representations into fiction, can only gain in credibility if, as Emmmanuel Obeachina in Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel intimates, the African novelist finds his cues in traditional beliefs and values which determine the psychological responses of characters born and bred within traditional society. The implication here is that characters in literature that seemingly do not have an inner psychological existence apart from their public or surface life and ordinary everyday relationships are flimsy and one-dimensional. The characters in Boundless live, grow and have fathomable being and concrete essence – by virtue of the descriptive, narrative and stream of consciousness details as well as the plethora of other techniques that the author uses to make the reader imagine and visualise them.
Yenla, Sam’s mother, is present just in the first three chapters, but she is an inspirational and a stabilising force in her daughter’s life throughout. Even after her death, Sam always longs to be with her when caught in one or another quandary – when thoughts of Mayne start tormenting her, when she has to make a choice between her two loves at the end, etc. Yenla is royalty, and all the while the reader sees her, she comports herself in public as such – remaining seated when commanded to stand, not allowing herself to be ordered about, walking upright head held high when she has to, bearing pain and torture with silent dignity and very rarely displaying emotional tantrums. When the English and French advance induces the racist brute Wakerman to solicit Yenla’s help in hiding Lucy, Samarah with the hindsight of untold injustices protests outright; her mother, more tolerant and accommodating schools her to understand that conditions are never permanent and that even her late father would prescribe hospitability. Yenla is a true wife who loves her husband dearly and feels real pain at their separation and his consequent death. She is also a true mother, who plays her role of educating her daughter to the best of her ability.
Samarah, the precocious heroine of our story grows up in front of our own very eyes, from the impetuous, impulsive young ten-years old who is already aware of her betrothal to Bintum and its implications, through a pain ridden life in which she loses almost every motive force she has for survival – through the whims of thieving and warped whites – her father to marauding Germans, her mother because of the perverted desires of the leering Grausman, her first love who must go to serve the whims and caprices of white tin gods, and even Mayne who is stabbed and almost loses his life defending a defenceless black girl. She grows and matures into a lady of accomplishments, loved and admired by almost all her male and female acquaintances (except rivals and the jealous, of course), and into a spouse shorn of racial hatred enough to accept Mayne’s advances and learn to love him, but also into a true Chefwa royal princess who does all in her power to give her people value and importance. When she leaves to return with Mayne to the coast at the end of the novel, she has rediscovered her identity, enracinated herself culturally despite her global outlook and won respectability for her marriage with Mayne, even from Bintum, the one person who should have been embittered at the fact of losing her. She is the author’s dream idea of a woman, with too much success dogging her footsteps, some readers may be tempted to say. But her physical and psychological growth, “fleshed up” before our own very eyes, is realistic to satisfactory measure.
Bintum and Mayne are both worthy partners to Lady Samarah who exudes royalty in all she does. Bintum is courageous right from the start when he opts to go back into the village with the menace of the Germans hanging on all like a Sword of Damocles. He is wounded and left for dead, but succeeds to follow the slave caravan right to the coast where he traces Yenla and Sam, but must soon live in hiding because of Lucy’s grouse against Samarah. Finally, his forceful conscription separates him from his childhood fiancée and takes him thousands of miles away – to fight for one land thief against another. When he loses Sam to Mayne, he concedes nobly and decides to pursue the other equally noble cause of liberating his colonised land. He is a true prince – the ten years old Samarah had acknowledged this with her incipient discerning when he had confided in her that he would pretend to leave but would sneak back to fight against the Germans.
On his part, Mayne stands out in stark contrast to all the stereotypical racist whites. He is humane and void of the pretensions to superiority that almost all the other whites display. We first meet him when he is of Bintum’s age, and his friends, we are told, are black boys – Ayuk, Bessem’s brother “and my other friends” (P 42); even when his father tongue-lashes him (pp 52-53) and later sends him to London for breaking those unwritten race boundary rules, he is ever more resolved to satisfy his natural instincts – associate with the nice black acquaintances who came across his path. Even while in London, his boon companion, Carl, is a Black American. Mayne’s mere presence on his father’s estate is a cause for generalised happiness, yes, even among the native who serve as workers there. Generous to a fault, he gives the foremen whiskey – “Fire Mimbo” – which they share with the other workers – the same way in which he distributes same to the notables in Chefwa during the child naming ceremony. He increases the wages of his workers immediately he inherits his father’s business and is always on the move to address workers’ problems on the different plantations. This essential goodness is not lost on Sam, who gradually but surely sheds her animosity – lets down her guard, as Mayne describes it (P 135) – and comes to see him in a more humane light. Mayne displays a lot of determination when he sets out to get “Miss Fantasy”, whom Carl describes as “some ghost in your head” (P 73) but whom he later meets and assesses, in his determination to win her love as “headstrong” (P 90). Ultimately his determination pays. When he is stabbed while fighting to save a black woman from being raped by a white pervert – the one unsolved riddle in the novel – Sam offers him first aid while weeping and praying that she should not lose him too. And even when all are convinced that Samarah is dead or gone forever and Wakerman comes with his daughter, from all indications with match-making hopes, Mayne orders them to leave his estate; his heart that fell for Samarah during their first fleeting meeting, when he saved her from a snake, belongs to totally to her and to no one else. His love is of noble, knightly quality. Other characters are worthy of a word – Lucy (foil, meant to contrast with and emphasise the qualities of Samarah), Carl, Bessem, Dr Ryan, Fr Vincent, etc, but a word should be said about those in the traditional context.
Kintashe, the chief who dies at the beginning, is not present long enough to develop, but the reader knows him at once as a good traditionalist (the flashback at the end of the expository chapter, which we follow through Yenla’s thoughts gives enough evidence) and as a leader with avant-garde ideas, a trait which his daughter Samarah inherits from him and which the later Chief, Kentaw, acknowledges: “Every day you remind me more of my brother. He too had a lot of radical ideas, and a big heart…” (P 210). Kintashe opts that his daughter Samarah should get western education and even after his death, Yenla feels content that he will be happy in his grave at the opportunity given to the sharp Sam to sit in while Lucy is being taught by her home teacher. Kentaw may not be Kintashe, but both display good leadership qualities, always consulting the traditional councils in order to take any far-reaching decisions. The new chief will not jump into rash conclusions nor does he take sides for the sake of it, but gives chance to accused persons, like in the case of Samarah, to explain themselves.
Kefen Budji’s novel is written in language that is loaded with stylistic devices and literary techniques. The language used is Standard English – when the whites or the educated are conversing, when the third person omniscient narrator is reporting, the perspective used throughout, with its advantage of allowing the probes of the narrator explore the labyrinthine thought processes of the characters (especially the heroine’s), with stream of consciousness benefits and without casting a slur on verisimilitude, and surprisingly, between the natives. Also noteworthy is the fact that Grausman speaks English with a noticeable German twang – (Inzpection, Vho here is Zamarah,… go to Miz Lucy in ze mazter’z …), with humorous effect. Realistically, the petty functionaries and the uneducated communicate in a kind of pidgin (the foreman who gets Sam to write Patterson’s letter; Nfon, when he speaks out to the stray Samarah, etc). Many expressions in the author’s mother tongue add local colour (kilanglang, Bo Ntow, Kinton, Nchinda), and some pointed expressions in German (Verdammt Wilder, Hallo, verstehst du Deutsch, …) all go to show the author’s interest in and flair for languages. This pot-pourri of languages – the author’s facility of switching from on language to the other in her novel Boundless – goes a long way to giving the book a universal outlook, to enhance hybridism, which the author espouses and highlight an eclecticism of sorts.
The novel has is a plethora of commendable stylistic techniques and devices that the author employs to give the work its artistic quality, its artistic strength. Permit me broach only some here: the flair for descriptive details which help her to paint scenery and flesh her characters. Listen to this snippet: “The moonlight bathed the environment, giving it an ethereal quality. The huts dotted here and there looked like giant mushrooms coated with silver. The old woman cleared her throat, and her voice, rusty with age, croaked out” (P 99). Also, irony is employed in the novel to remarkably good effect. A few illustrations should suffice: Lucy’s ability to speak English turns out to be her undoing; the conceited German settler, Wakerman, who has been very brutal towards all black solicits a black, Yenla, to hide Lucy, faced with the Anglo-French advance; the news of the pregnancy that elates the couple is so soon followed by the crises and Samarah’s escape; finally, the party at the Commissioner’s, which Samarah does not want to attend and which Mayne convinces her to accompany him to, ends up driving a wedge between them.
There is also the use of flashback, which enhances the different literary considerations – background and setting, plot, character, theme, local colour, etc and which helps to tie up loose links. The novel is loaded with humour, which is present in the discussions between Sam and Bintum at the beginning and most infectious when Mayne and Carl are bantering. It is noteworthy that the characters are remarkable for repartee – Samarah, Carl Yenla at the beginning when Bo Ntow is goading her to muster her courage and leave. In answer to “What happened to my enchantress who stood firm in the face of any adversity”, she replies: “She fell in love”. Contrast is evident in Boundless – contrast of character (Lucy – Samarah, Patterson – Wakerman, Mayne – the racist whites, Bessem – Eposi, the colonial masters – the colonised, etc.), of thematic issues (tradition –modernism, hate – love, appearance – reality, etc) and of setting (the coast vs the hinterlands, the south vs the North, where Bintum and his peers fought, etc). Equally, the epistolary (use of letters) come in another stylistic technique – that from Mayne in London to Samarah, from Patterson Sr written by Samarah to Mayne in London (whose content is only evoked, pp 71 and 76) and from Bintum, calling off the betrothal – all with artistic fallouts.
There is also the use of the story within the story device – which brings out the people’s ethos, the handing down of the oral legacy from generation to generation by word of mouth and which lends orality to the work, what the Martinican writer, Edouard Glissant sees as miscegenation, “a dialectical relationship between oral and written literature”. Other aspects of oral literature – the riddles, the song and dance rituals that inform the naming ceremony, the proverbial expression, etc, are also a rich stylistic store. Dreams as portents are also techniques in Boundless – the dream about Mayne and Bintum going for one another’s throats, which almost comes to pass when Bintum comes in upon Mayne holding Samarah in the health facility in Chefwa and that in which Samarah re-lives or sees re-enacted the story of her clan in a story told by an old woman. Equally worthy of mention are the coincidences which give the impression of some “Deus ex Machina” force operating in the background – the fact that Samarah and Mayne meet fleetingly on the day she sees Bintum for the last time in a very long spell; the fact that Mayne is obsessed with thoughts about “Miss Fantasy” when she is being recruited to work in his father’s house; the fact that Sam leaves the house after the unfortunate party and meets Nfon from her hinterland area, who ultimately leads her back to Chefwa – but which nevertheless fit within the author’s overall artistic scheme. These are just a tip of the iceberg.
We are here today to acclaim into existence this wonderful first novel, whose qualities prove beyond doubt that the writer has mettle enough to etch pluses in gold on the African Literature landscape for Anglophone Cameroon Literature – yes, if she maintains and continues improving on the wonderful qualities that I discerned in the novel, Boundless. Yes, we are here to celebrate Kefen Budji’s “irruption” on the Cameroonian literary landscape – irruption because whether we like it or not, her novel is a compelling read for lovers of the spun word, this chosen one-in-few who can compose herself and spin a good yarn, despite the countless distractions that life at her age and the society at large are prey to.
We are here today to announce from roof and mountain tops that a writer is born who displays penetrating intelligence, keenness of observation and a fertile imagination and can write with depth of thought, breadth of scope, grace of phrase and beauty and power (courtesy Bernard N Fonlon, “The Philosophy the Science and the Art of the Short Story”). Like I told her in an sms when I first scanned through the work, her premiere is good enough to make all Africa proud. I quote: “You will now be haunted only by the challenge of the next publication – the worry of “Can I match the sublime quality of my debut novel?” Go, Kefen, go; you have matchless mettle and not even the skies can be you limit.
Tameh Valentine Nfon,
Ambanasom Shadrach A (2009) Hommage and Courtship: Romantic Stirrings of a Young Man, Agwecams Printers, Cameroon
Glissant, Edouard, “Cry of the World”, Paper presented at a seminar in Strasbourg in 1993.
Fonlon, Bernard (1978)The Genuine Intellectual Yaounde: Buma Kor
Fonlon, Bernard (1979) ABBIA, Cameroon Cultural Review (34-35-36-37), Yaounde: CEPER
Obeachina Emmmanuel Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel
Omotoso Kolo (1979) The Form of the African Novel: A Critical Essay Ile-Ife: Ogunbiyi Printing Works
Warner, Alan (1975) A Short Guide to English Style, London: Oxford University Press.