39 Berne Street
Chewing determinedly on his ndongo ndongo, Uncle Démoney contemplated the sunrise.
It was more than a routine for him. It was an essential daily ritual. A religion.
His ndongo ndongo, a thirty-centimeter rattan stem as thick as a cigar, served as a toothbrush. My uncle simply had no desire to buy himself a regular one. That's what we use over here, he said, a well-dried-out ndongo ndongo.
I don't know why Uncle Démoney spent so much time on oral hygiene. As a child, I used to think it was some sort of ablution he performed before communing with his sun god during his morning prayers. I was even convinced that God never answered prayers from foul-smelling mouths.
Sun god hadn't risen yet, but Uncle Démoney was already emerging from his hut, lumbering like an old elephant. He didn't really look like a big old elephant with dangerous tusks though, he was pretty skinny to be honest.
That morning, outside his dilapidated little house, Démoney yawned and raised his hands. He had tied a long, colorful, washed-out loincloth tight round his waist. He rubbed his sunken eyes with his dry hands. The fine lines on his face stood out even though he was still young, barely fifty years old. With one hand, he shaded his wrinkly eyes as he looked up at the sky in search of his sun god who was yet to appear. He smiled.
Still chewing hard on his ndongo ndongo, Démoney began to clean his teeth. He loved to say it was the only thing left for him to do in a country where people listed unemployment as a skill. In Ngodi-Akwa, my uncle had been one of the lucky few to have ever had a job. Now, he was like everyone else, a jobless hustler.
Any time we spent our holidays in Cameroon, my mother Mbila refused point blank to sleep in the Ngodi-Akwa marshland where her brother lived, a brother she also respectfully called Papa. She always stayed in a hotel with several stars in downtown Douala. But I always really wanted to see my uncle, so she'd leave me with him and come back for me a few days later. That's how I ended up talking to her about what he did when he woke up.
"My mother says that there are things in life that she can't forgive . . ."
At age 16, Dipita's mother, Mbila, arrived in Switzerland from Cameroon. Trafficked into Europe, she supported herself and her son as a prostitute in Geneva. Dipita, now a young, black, gay man serving a five-year sentence in a Swiss prison, shares their story and his own search for purpose. He intertwines their stories with the life of Uncle Démoney, a former civil servant in Cameroon, who staked everything on sending his sister to Switzerland.
39 Berne Street explores the complex themes of prostitution, immigration, and homosexuality through a fluid and expressive prose that makes it ring true. Originally published in French, it won the Prix du Roman des Romands in 2014.
Max Lobe's 39 Berne Street vividly describes the unforgivable actions visited by family members upon family members in desperate bids for survival and contentment in the midst of Dipita's struggle toward forgiveness and acceptance.
About the Authors
Born in Douala, Cameroon, in 1986, Max Lobe is a Swiss-Cameroonian novelist, short story writer, and poet. In 2017, he received the Ahmadou Kourouma Prize for his novel Confidences about the Cameroon war of independence. He currently lives in Geneva where he founded GenevAfrica, an association that builds bridges between Swiss and African authors.
Johanna McCalmont is a Northern Irish translator and interpreter based in Brussels where she works from French, German, Dutch, and Italian.
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