WHEN THE PLUMS ARE RIPE. By Patrice Nganang. Translated from the French by Amy B. Reid. Farrar Straus & Giroux. 368 pages. $28.
Cameroonian writer Patrice Nganang is part of a brilliant wave of NGANA writers, the New Generation of African Novelists in America. Dating back to at least Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's debut with "Purple Hibiscus" in 2003, this wave is doing for African authors (and their publishers) what the Boom did for Latin American writing in the 1970s, and what the post-"Midnight's Children" generation of Indian writers did in the 1980s and '90s.
Born and brought up in francophone Cameroon, which is also home to 200 indigenous languages, Nganang has a Ph.D. from Germany and now teaches comparative literature at Stony Brook University in New York.
Unlike most of his NGANA peers, Nganang’s novels are more concerned with local national history than with transnational movement. "When the Plums Are Ripe" is the second of a trilogy of novels chronicling Cameroon's highly complex, multi-ethnic, multilingual history from the late 19th century to the present day.
Opening in August 1940 when France had capitulated to the German armies, Nganang's novel uses the experience of a range of characters from the village of Edea to reveal the many ironies of Cameroon's surprisingly significant role in World War II. Because Cameroonian volunteers sided with the Free French against the Italians to their north in Libya, General de Gaulle was able to gain stature with Churchill by opening an additional front against the Axis forces.
The action of "When the Plums Are Ripe" is propelled by a rich cast of Cameroonian characters caught up in this usually overlooked theater of the war: the clerk Pouka, who loves French poetry and likes to refer to himself in the third person; his illiterate woodsman cousin Hebga; the compulsive stutterer Philothee; the trade unionist Um Nyobe; and the feisty Mother of the Market Ngo Bikai.
All of these affectionately realized characters rub shoulders with French colonial leaders whose arrogant self-aggrandizement at the expense of the African soldiers on whom their success depends is mercilessly mocked. General Leclerc, whom French accounts of the war represent as the victor of the Battles of Kufra and Murzuk, comes across as an ignorant opportunist whose meteoric rise from colonel to general depends on his supplanting the much more deserving Lt. Col. d’Ornano.
Nganang's representation of Leclerc and his nonreaction to d’Ornano’s and his recruits’ deaths in battle calls to mind Joseph Heller's treatment of senior officers’ blithe unawareness of the human consequences of their decisions in "Catch-22." Indeed, Nganang’s offhanded descriptions of brutal violence of the tirailleurs' battles, as they push the Italians out of Libya, similarly recalls Heller's bitter critique of the insanity of war in general.
The particular irony of the heroism of Cameroonian "cannon-fodder" soldiers adds a layer of political critique beyond Heller's classic anti-war novel, however. "When the Plums Are Ripe" shows how Cameroon's sacrifices during World War II enabled France — simultaneously “oppressor and ideal” — to take over the territory and make it a full-blown colony by 1945 when previously it had been a League of Nations mandated protectorate. At the end of the novel, we learn that the character Um Nyobe is in fact the nationalist hero Ruben Um Nyobe, who led Cameroonian resistance to France in the 1950s.
Holding this complex, satisfying novel together is Nganang's sardonic disembodied narrator, fully conscious that post-independence Cameroon has produced one of Africa's longest-lasting dictators, Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982, with his own brand of French-abetted oppression.
Nganang himself was detained for three weeks just last year when he visited his home country because he had dared to criticize Biya's crackdown in the anglophone region of Cameroon.
Despite its often cynical tone, "When the Plums Are Ripe" presents its corrective history of Cameroon as a rejection of the authority of the state’s version and a reaffirmation of faith in the ordinary citizens of Cameroon whose decolonial revolution will eventually bear fruit.