A little-known chapter of World War II history, at least to most Western readers, is the effect of the war on Cameroon, which was under French administration. In 1940, Cameroon fell under Nazi control after France was occupied by Germany. Patrice Nganang chronicles the effect of these events on the small city of Edéa in When the Plums Are Ripe, a tale that is as poetic as it is harrowing.
Poetry is one of the passions of Pouka, an Edéa native who has returned from the capital city of Yaoundé in June 1940. In Yaoundé, “the heart of the country is revealed when the plums are ripe.” These are African plums, inexpensive delights so plentiful that fruit sellers have to discard unsold quantities into the streets each day. This makes them a perfect metaphor for what Cameroon did during the war, “when it sent off along the road through the desert its many sons . . . just like the fruit-sellers toss away each evening the plums they haven’t been able to grill.”
Pouka is one of Cameroon’s young men, although he is spared the war’s worst. He is an administrator who has worked with white people in the capital for the past three years. In intimate, old-fashioned prose (“Wait a moment, dear reader, for this is a scene he had played out for himself several times”), Nganang describes Pouka’s reason for returning home: to start a poetry circle, like one of his idols, Théophile Gautier, had done.
As the war intensifies, Pouka’s family members and friends are recruited to serve under General Leclerc and the Free French forces. Among them are Hebga, Pouka’s cousin, a boxer who “remained the area’s favorite son, just for the strength of his muscles,” and Philothée, a stutterer who is one of the few to show up for the poetry circle. In the midst of it all is M’bangue, Pouka’s father, known for dreams and predictions that invariably come true, although his latest seems preposterous: that Hitler will commit suicide.
The tone of some plot developments is too outlandish for the rest of the book, but When the Plums Are Ripe is a moving tribute to a people so little regarded that, as Nganang’s narrator puts it, if they appeared in Hollywood movies, they’d have no speaking parts, “their story told by a narrator off-screen—someone like me.”