Trigger warning for frequent use of racist language.
Before doctors understood the causes of and developed reliable treatments for the disease, African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) outbreaks could kill hundreds of thousands of people. Because the disease is caused by parasites in the tsetse fly, efforts to control and hopefully eradicate the disease involve controlling the population of the fly and treating patients as soon as possible. The course of dealing with sleeping sickness hasn’t run as smoothly as my quick background might make it sound. Mutt-Lon’s satirical novella, The Blunder, takes its inspiration from an actual historical incident. Mutt-Lon uses the real blunder and its aftermath to shine a light on colonial racism and paternalism and tribal conflict.
Damienne Bourdin is not a star in the medical field when she is dispatched to French Cameroon in 1929 to take on a personal mission for the head of Cameroon’s sleeping sickness eradication efforts, Eugène Jamot. Jamot explains that one of the doctors in his program has made a big, big mistake in calculating doses of tryparsamide and atoxyl. At the correct dosage, these drugs can treat sleeping sickness. At too high a dosage, it causes irreparable blindness due to the arsenic in the medicines. Hundreds of people were left blind. This mistake destroyed a lot of the confidence Cameroonians had in western medicine and the French government, to the point that a war might break out against the French. Damienne’s mission is to go into the interior to find the daughter of one of the most powerful Cameroonian chiefs. Edoa trained as a nurse and was caught in the violence. If Damienne can bring her back, the chief promises to use his influence to head off a bigger conflict. To keep things quiet, Damienne goes into the interior with only two guides: an official from the powerful chief’s government and a man named Ndongo, who is always described as a pygmy without reference to his tribe.
A savvier protagonist would have more questions about Jamot’s hair-brained quest. I certainly did. Jamot might be a genius when it comes to infectious disease but he clearly knows nothing about espionage or diplomacy. Almost as soon as Damienne leaves Yaoundé things start to go wrong. Damienne’s journey introduces her to angry Cameroonians, buffoonish colonial officers, and medical officers caught in the middle just trying to keep people alive. Her own prejudices toward the Cameroonians don’t help either. There are many cringe-worthy moments when Damienne is astonished to learn that Cameroonians are intelligent people who don’t need any Europeans to tell them what to do.
Amy B. Reid, the faithful translator, describes The Blunder as a hilarious lampooning of French Cameroon at the end of the 1920s. Hilarious is not the adjective I would use. It didn’t make me laugh. More than anything else, it made me angry. It’s possible that I’m missing things that would be funny if I was able to read the book in the original French. It’s also possible that I’m missing a lot of cultural and historical context. That said, not making me laugh is not a reason not to read this book. Don’t go looking for humor here. Instead, pay attention to the very pointed satire of the chaotic situations Damienne finds herself in and to the oblivious racism of the Europeans. Mutt-Lon’s verbal barbs strike deep.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.