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Vertraulichkeiten (Confidentialities)

„My son, you are now measuring the depth of the river with your finger. What you must understand is that you are nowhere near ready for these things you want to know. It’s too dangerous for you. Why try to dig up something that everyone, even the victims you want to bother, wants to forget.“ (245; poco.lit.‘s translation)

In Max Lobe‘s novel Vertraulichkeiten (Confidentialities, not yet translated into English), a nameless first-person narrator who lives in Switzerland travels to Cameroon, where he grew up, and in a village somewhere on the road between Duala and Jaunde, an old woman tells him about the Cameroonian struggle for independence. The majority of the book is told from her, from Ma Maliga. She has a unique, humorous voice and constantly encourages her guest to drink more of her good palm wine with her. At first she tells at length and in detail of her family, the village structures, her wedding and the white colonialists appear only in passing. Only later does it become clear that she needs the wine and the preamble in order to ease into the awful experiences that she had to endure during the struggle for independence. She lived through the time period in which Um Nyobé, a central figure of the anti-colonial resistance, was murdered by the French colonial police, just like numerous other people from the region around Boumnyebel. Maliga herself had to starve in an internment camp while heavily pregnant and endure unforgettable abuse.

As the reader we are able to listen in on Maligas report, just like the first-person narrator does. As he lives in Europe, she continuously makes sure that he can still follow her, which is useful for readers with little prior knowledge of Cameroonian history. She provides explanations, makes all kinds of jokes and uses word repetitions for emphasis or idiosyncratic wording such as Langer-Bleistift-Intellektuelle (Long-pencil intellectuals in English) as a means of illustration. At the end she expresses her grief for those she has lost. She offers a glimpse into a violent past which she would rather no longer speak about. The first-person narrator primarily listens, weaves in short snapshots of his experience of the Cameroonian present day and is left with the open question of what he should do with the knowledge of the violent history. This question is universal, and one answer that Max Lobe’s Vertraulichkeiten suggests is to start by listening.

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