In March 2021, while I was struggling like everyone else with the claustrophobic reality of the second year of the pandemic, a literary agent in Paris wrote: He asked me to read a novel.
When I opened Mutt-Lon’s Les 700 avenue de Bafia (Emmanuelle Collas, 2020) I quickly realized how much I needed this book. It is a noisy, madcap adventure through the tropical jungle, distant in space and time from my present, and yet the perfect homeopathic remedy for what was ailing me.
Set in the 1920s, the novel focuses on Damienne Bourdin, a young French doctor who needs to escape from a deep sense of alienation and the traumatic loss of her young son, who decides to board a boat bound for Cameroon to find herself to join in the fight against sleeping sickness. (Think of the tsetse fly from The African Queen?) As spring stretched into summer, this story helped me stay sane during the endless lockdown: I translated it as The mistake.
The magic of Mutt-Lon’s lyrics is that he takes Damienne Bourdin’s despair and turns it into the antidote to our own. He blends escapism, laughter, pop culture references and sexual tension into a parable for our time, a warning against the blindness of racism and a paean to both human connection and, of course, literature.
Still, I had a hard time explaining my enthusiasm for this project to friends: “Oh, you know, there was this case of medical malpractice in the 1920s when a misguided French doctor screwed up the dosage of a treatment for sleeping sickness and affected hundreds of people blinded in Cameroon… No, no, it’s a comedy!” How could I explain that the novel that got me intrigued was about a colonial rampage? And even worse, that it was about the hubris of those who sought glory in fighting a disease that caused the blindness of hundreds of their patients?
Mutt-Lon’s novel is based on his archival research into a particularly dark moment in Cameroon’s colonial history: a moment when the French, who had been given a mandate over much of what is now Cameroon by the League of Nations, were trying to consolidate their power to control and eradicate sleeping sickness or trypanosomiasis, which devastated the region.
So his story begins with Dr. Eugène Jamot, who led the French fight against the disease and set up mobile health units to treat patients in remote villages; a statue commemorating his efforts still stands in front of the Ministry of Health in Yaoundé.* The author is aware that his original aim was to set things right, Jamot’s continued public recognition with the elimination of the to reconcile “mistakes”. that has cost so many their eyesight.
While its protagonist, Dr. Damienne Bourdin, who is a fictional character, many others are real, including Dr. Jamot and Dr. Monier, the supreme chief Charles Atangana – who also features in another novel I translated, Patrice Nganang Mount Pleasant (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) – and perhaps most notably Teketekete, the flamboyant “witch doctor”.
While I was working on the translation, Mutt-Lon and I chatted on WhatsApp about his work and mine, about our experiences of the pandemic on other sides of the world.
While I was working on the translation, Mutt-Lon and I chatted on WhatsApp about his work and mine, about our experiences of the pandemic on other sides of the world. I loved hearing the sounds of bustling Douala as he walked the city streets and was mesmerized by the way he wove archival details into his storyline. (He even sent me a picture of the actual Teketekete so I could see the “mane” of his headdress.) But it’s Mutt-Lon’s talent as a storyteller – his ability to frame dark truths in a tale of comical misadventures – that makes it stand out this novel. He doesn’t turn away from our human flaws, but clarifies the importance of our need to connect.
The mistake is a deeply generous and humanistic novel that invites us not to laugh at, but to laugh at With the weaknesses of his characters. Stylistically, Mutt-Lon Voltaire is indebted to philosophical stories (think candidate or “Zadig”), where the protagonist’s quest is repeatedly interrupted to allow stories to be swapped, and where characters are allegorical rather than elaborate. This attention to story-sharing is part of the novel’s humanism.
But it’s the slapstick moments and the pop culture references that make me smile. Even if you didn’t spend part of your childhood watching Johnny Weismullers Tarzan Series from the 1930s and 40s laughs as Damienne (disguised as a nun) charges through the jungle, shedding the layers of her habit and taking with them the presumptions of France’mission civilization.”
Because that is also the point of this novel: to question racist and sexist stereotypes that shaped the colonial encounter in Africa and that haunt us to this day. The century between the events of the novel and our present gives readers the space to recognize the flaws of the characters and the structures they represent, to recognize and redeem our common humanity.
It is significant that salvation in this novel depends on literature. Damienne fails in her attempt to play the heroine in Africa, but back in France she not only finds peace and success as a writer, but ends up finding enough perspective to write a novel based on her direct experience of colonial error. And so The mistake concludes with a wink from Mutt-Lon, who tells Damienne’s story to set the record straight. It seems that like his protagonist and like his readers, he needed this novel.
I finished my work on the translation this winter, but now that it’s clear that Covid will be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future, I realize how much I still need it and how much I’ve gained from my connection with Mutt- Lon. The mistake is a comical adventure that challenges us to come to terms with personal and collective flaws and affirms the resilience and beauty of our humanity. Don’t you need that too?
Mutt-Lonwhich can be translated as “Homme du terroir‘ or ‘Man of the Country’ is the literary pseudonym of Daniel Nsegbe, who lives in Douala, where he works as a television news and film editor. The mistake is his second novel and the first to be translated into English. His first novel Ceux qui sortent dans la nuit (Paris: Grasset, 2013) won the prestigious Ahmadou Kourouma Prize in 2014.
* A useful overview of Dr. Jamot’s campaign against trypanosomiasis and her commemoration, including a picture of the memorial at the Ministry of Health, can be found in this article by François-Xavier Mboppi-Keou, et al (2014), The Legacies by Eugène Jamot and La Jamotique (nih.gov).
The mistake by Mutt-Lon and translated by Amy B. Reid is now available.