A Long Way from Douala, by Max Lobe (Review)
Note - this review originally appeared in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, March-April, 2022
It probably says a lot about the state of gay subject matter in the world today that, in a coming-of-age novel set in modern-day Cameroon, the narrator, Jean’s, nascent sexuality is almost a minor point. Such is the case, however, in Max Lobe’s A Long Way from Douala. After his father dies, Jean’s brother, whose parents have never been supportive of his goals, sets out to cross illegally into Europe to become a professional soccer player. Along with his friend, Simon, and at the behest of his mother, Jean sets off through the country in hopes of stopping his brother before he can cross the border. Meanwhile, Boko Haram is terrorizing the northern part of the country with constant raids, and Jean is beginning to feel an undeniable attraction to his fellow searcher, Simon.
Less perhaps a story of emerging sexuality than a window into present-day Cameroon, A Long Way brings to vivid life a country similarly struggling to define itself against its own inner conflicts of tribalism and competing religions. The characters themselves, as well as the character of the country, come alive in countless details, such as what’s for sale at the local roadside stands (“Condoms-bonbons-cigarettes!”), the pervasive corruption and ineffectuality of the government, and the casual abuse by parents of their children, all of whom seem doomed if they do not find a way out of the country to somewhere else. Indeed, lured by slogans promising “Azerbaijan! The key to success!” or “Odessa, the university for you,” many are tricked by scam artists who simply take their money and disappear.
This is the world in which Jean is trying to define himself. In articulating it, Max Lobe has written a very entertaining and illuminating novel.