A condensed version of this review appeared in the August 2022 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
In her translator’s notes to Mutt-Lon’s novel The Blunder, Amy B. Reid describes the book as both a “critique of the racism that undergirded France’s colonial mission” in Cameroon and “a friendly poke at readers” that uses “boisterous humor” to remind of us of “our own, very present, human imperfections.”
I’m not sure all the promised comedy carried over to the English version—either that, or I missed most of it—but I did appreciate Mutt-Lon’s layered depiction of the intersections between imperialism, race, and gender.
The bulk of the story takes place in 1929, a time when, as Mutt-Lon relates in his author’s note, “Cameroon was a territory under control of the League of Nations … with Great Britain and France administering separate parts of the former German colony and serving as de facto colonizing powers.” In the French sector, doctor and historical figure Eugène Jamot is leading an effort to combat the sleeping-sickness epidemic devastating the indigenous population. His campaign seems to be succeeding.
But unbeknownst to him, one of his field units has for months now been administering a triple dose of the primary treatment: tryparsamide, an arsenic derivative. When given at such concentrations, the side effects can be severe. And in Cameroon’s Bafia region, the toll comes to at least seven hundred cases of partial or complete blindness.
Damienne Bourdin, the book’s protagonist, arrives in Cameroon shortly after Jamot has discovered his underlings’ “blunder.” Local leaders have made the connection too, and with racial tensions flaring, Jamot charges Damienne with averting further crisis by forestalling a looming tribal war. It’s a farcically tall task. (And from a thematic standpoint, probably intentionally so.)
Damienne has a medical background, but the rest of her past provides little relevant experience or history of competence. Her interpreter quickly abandons her. And the other men she meets—French and Cameroonian alike—are more likely to objectify her than help her cause.
She’s not prejudice-free either. Like nearly all the white characters in the book, Damienne is (initially at least) convinced of her supremacy. She sees her native guide as “primitive,” she’s surprised to find no Africans “with a bone through their nose,” and she has a deep-seated fear of “seeing hate-filled Black faces burst from [their] huts.”
Yet Mutt-Lon takes care to illustrate that there are also “ethnic hierarchies at play among the local people, with the Bantus seeking to assert their superiority over the Pygmies.” Not everyone in the book is unfortunate enough to suffer from physical blindness induced by medical malpractice, but no one is free of blind spots.
Damienne eventually recognizes some of hers. But others remain. At the end of the book, she still judges the doctor as a “great man” worthy of the statue that stands in front of the Ministry of Public Health in Yaoundé (Cameroon’s capital). But Mutt-Lon also suggests that Jamot was well aware that even lower levels of tryparsamide can cause optic neuritis. “The population doesn’t need to know this,” Jamot tells Damienne earlier on, “but with normal dosages, one expects to find one or two cases of blindness per hundred patients in each subdivision.” That hubris—assuming he knows best and doesn’t need to explain the treatment’s risks to his non-white patients—ultimately undermines his otherwise transformative accomplishments.
I found The Blunder’s nuanced deconstruction of this “savior” mentality particularly effective. Other aspects of the 151-page story felt rushed and could have used fleshing out. But what’s present is extremely readable, a testament to both Mutt-Lon’s skillful prose and Reid’s deft rendering of it into English (potential loss of humor aside). I also enjoyed learning a bit of forgotten history. Worth a try.