TRIBUTE: The Old Man Has Eaten His Medal (Ferdinand Leopold Oyono, 1929-2010)

Forwarded from: Cilas Kemedjio

According to a press release from the office of the Minister of State, Secretary General of the Presidency of the Republic of Cameroon, a press release broadcasted by Cameroon Radio Television, Cameroon writer Ferdinand Leopold Oyono was pronounced dead on June 10, 2010 at the Yaounde General Hospital. It is believed that Oyono died shortly after attending at a state luncheon offer by the Cameroonian first couple to visiting United Nations Secretary and his wife. Mr. Ban Ki-Moon was one of the first people to pay tribute to Oyono during a visit at the National Assembly in the afternoon of June 10.

Born on September 14, 1929 in the southern Cameroonian city of Ebolowa, Ferdinand Leopold followed the path of what Lydie Moudileno has justly termed the brilliant pupil of the colonial school. He completed his studies in French colonial school before attending French universities. During his time in a Latin Quarter dominated by anticolonial politics, the celebration of African cultural renaissance under the guidance of Presence africaine, Oyono made his mark as a potent, if witty anticolonial novelist. With the help of his then friend Mongo Beti, he published his first novel Une Vie de Boy (1956). He then went on and wrote two other novels, Le Vieux Negre et la Medaille (The Old Man and the Medal) (1956) and Chemin d’Europe (Road to Europe, 1960).

Oyono started his diplomatic career in 1959 and served, among other appointments, as Cameroonian Ambassador in Paris and the United Nations. When his friend Paul Biya became President of the Republic of Cameroon in 1982, Oyono was recalled home where he served as Secretary General of the Presidency, Ministry of Housing, Ministry of External Relations and finally Ministry of State in charge of Culture. At the time of his death, he was serving as a Roving Ambassador.

Oyono’s novels are almost universally celebrated as classics of modern African writing. Late fellow Cameroonian writer Bate Besong has this to say about his style: “Your writing had a surprising quality of solidity since your satirical intention was quite apparent. You wanted to castigate the negative aspects of French colonial life by reflecting them in the convex mirror of exaggeration and absurdity in your contrapuntal composition, employing various linguistic devices, working on irony. […] Your lines had a resilient, nervous quality; short and expressive; they reverberated with symbolic meaning. In a clear, compact, polished, economical, almost laconic prose, your novels flashed out with striking metaphors as you tried out new techniques in composition, characterization and verbal treatment of fictional material. They were passionate, sensuous, marked by an exuberant vitality, eclectic in scope. You revealed the ruts and root of daily colonial existence with its vulgarity and stupidity behind the facade of magnificent slogans. The Old Man and the Medal was for long time taught in Cameroon high schools. In fact, Oyono is almost referred to as the Old Man, sometimes as the “vieux negre sans medaille”, (the old man without the medal). Une Vie de Boy is critically acclaimed and has managed to remain on the prestigious French Press Pocket collection for decades. I believe Road to Europe, if read closely, is one of the foundational text of postcolonial criticism. Bate Besong are therefore well deserved.

But Besong also addressed Oyono as “Son Excellence” and with this dubious sentence (“You were a writer”) that speak to the ambivalence many in Cameroon felt towards Oyono, described by Besong as the “loyal supporter and servile tool in the mandibles of the neo-colonial concentration camp empire.” The title of his essay on Oyono is even more evocative: “The writer is deader. Alas Poor Ferdinand (Son Excellence Leopold Oyono (ALA Bulletin Vol. 28 No 2). Oyono, for example, as Cameroonian Ambassador in Paris, participated in the scheme orchestrated by French and Cameroonian governments to strip Mongo Beti of his French nationality and deport him to Cameroon where he was on the blacklist of “dangerous marxits.” The anticolonialist writer not at all inspired Oyono, the diplomat, and the State minister. His biographers will probably solve this paradox. For now, let us utter the ritual words: “May the earth of our ancestors be light upon him”!

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