A Long Way from Douala
- By Max Lobe; translated by Ros Schwartz
- Other Press
- 208 pp.
- Reviewed by Susi Wyss
- November 20, 2022
Buckle up for a wild, rowdy road trip through Cameroon.
While there’s been a welcome increase in the number of books by African authors available to readers in the U.S., there remains a dearth of novels by Francophone Africans translated into English and published here. This disparity has resulted in these writers — and the stories from their countries — being underrepresented in the body of African literature that reaches an American audience. Fortunately, Other Press has taken a small step toward righting this imbalance by publishing A Long Way from Douala, a lovely, rollicking read from Cameroonian author Max Lobe.
If you’ve ever spent time in Cameroon, you’re familiar with what Francophone Africans refer to as “l’ambiance africaine” — the country’s lively, vibrant atmosphere, especially when people gather to hang out and dance to loud and exuberant music, often at outdoor bars. And more than likely, you’ll have heard of legendary soccer player Roger Milla, who had a successful career in France and played for Cameroon’s national team in three World Cups.
Lobe weaves both of these threads into the fabric of his novel, along with other characteristics of current-day Cameroon, where smartphones abound, terrorists attack the population up north (even as the president’s propaganda machine insists he’s got everything under control), and it seems like every young person wants boza (migration to Europe) in hopes of finding the economic opportunities scarce at home.
At one point, Lobe explains why people refer to roadside restaurants as tourne-dos (“turn your backs”), where customers turn their backs to the road when they eat:
“These days, people want to avoid being recognized. If someone sees you eating, they barge in. Don’t they say that if there’s enough for one, there must be enough for ten?”
In this setting, Jean Moussima Bobé, a mama’s boy and accomplished student in his first year at the University of Douala, sets off with his best friend, Simon, to find Jean’s older brother, Roger, who has run away from home to pursue his dream of following in his namesake’s shoes by achieving soccer stardom in Europe.
The trip is paved with danger, thanks to daredevil bus drivers, Boko Haram attacks on buses and trains, police searches for said terrorists, and shady characters who smuggle humans desperate for boza. But Jean is willing to face these perils not because he’s especially brave or determined to find his brother, but because he’s eager to spend one-on-one time with handsome Simon, on whom he has a secret, unrequited crush.
In some ways, A Long Way from Douala is a classic road-trip novel about two friends traveling into the unknown and meeting interesting characters along the way. Besides their fellow passengers, Jean and Simon meet a tall blonde transvestite called the Gazelle, a human smuggler with a code of ethics, and a female police inspector more interested in heaping insults on Roger’s family than on finding him. Throughout, the author tackles themes such as terrorism, child abuse, authoritarianism, the plight of undocumented immigrants, tensions between Cameroon’s Christian south and Muslim north, and homophobia.
Despite these heavy subjects, Lobe has pulled off a lively, funny story. As Jean points out, in Cameroon, “[a] funeral is also a party.” The songs he hears during his travels — ranging from an old favorite, “Konkaï Makossa” by the late Charlotte Mbango, to Cameroonian bikutsi music and a more recent hit from Nigeria, “Dorobucci” — provide a jamming soundtrack that will make you want to get up and dance if you give them a listen.
Lobe also makes extensive use of Camfranglais, a slang hybrid of French, English, Pidgin, and local languages; a handy glossary at the back of the book helps the reader keep up. And he gleefully jettisons the worn-out Western writing rule about using exclamation points sparingly, instead employing them with abandon, especially in his dialogue:
“When [Roger] walked past, girls stopped chatting and looked after him. It was quite a sight! Once he was out of view, they melted like margarine in the sun. They said: ‘Eeesh Ma! Did you see how fiiiiit he is? Oooh!’ or ‘Mmm! That guy’s cuteness is totally gonna kill us!’”
In short, Max Lobe’s novel is l’ambiance africaine in literary form — a delightful read that provides an inviting window into Cameroonian culture and leaves you wanting more. For readers who need a neat and tidy ending, A Long Way from Douala might disappoint. But it also feels more real than most road-trip stories because it exemplifies the old adage: It’s about the journey, not the destination. If you’re in the mood for a bumpy, boisterous one, you won’t regret going along!
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]
Susi Wyss is author of The Civilized World, a novel in stories set across Africa that was largely inspired by her 20-year career in international health. In addition to receiving the Maria Thomas Fiction Award, The Civilized World was named a “Book to Pick Up Now” by O, the Oprah Magazine.