In an article published last summer in The Chronicle Review, Rob Nixon makes the case for examining depictions of slow violence in literature of the global South. Defining slow violence as “neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental [violence], whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries,” Nixon argues for its “[particular pertinence] to the strategic challenge of environmental calamities.” Perhaps to discover intimations of slow violence, we should look to the environments created with these texts for signs of things gone awry––even those that, at times, might stand in place for the otherwise-silenced, subaltern voices.
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“I take in the world from below,” claims the canine narrator, Mboudjak, in the early stages of Patrice Nganang’s novel, Dog Days (available in a wonderful translation by Amy Baram Reid, University of Virginia Press: 2006). And that is precisely the worldview the reader is allowed into, one that subverts the top-down politics of a Cameroon obsessing over the exploits of the tyrannical Biya. Mboudjak, as narrator, is a vital link in the ecology of the city streets to which he belongs and into which the reader becomes immersed. While narrating his geographic walking tour of Yaoundé, primarily within the neighborhood named “Madagascar,” Mboudjak traverses an urban landscape that could be read as a landscape of fear.
Human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, in his early work Landscapes of Fear, denotes such a terrain as one in which there “are the almost infinite manifestation of the forces for chaos, natural and human.” Mboudjak’s world, populated by mysterious spirits and reportedly (and sometimes truly) dangerous characters seems to easily lend itself to such a study. Yet might there be something more deeply grounded in the physical landscape of the Cameroonian streets that is equally capable of evoking fear?
As a self-proclaimed “object in the human universe,” Mboudjak is subject to the human-built constructions and constrictions of the neighborhood. Mboudjak relates of his master’s correction “if I stray from the path” and eventually gives up the freedom of his wanderings for the chains of civilization, sacrificing––in the process––the openness and freedom of space for the security found in the confines of a specific place. Should we read this decision as motivated by a desire for “freedom of the mind,” as Mboudjak claims, or rather, did the landscape produce a fear that could only be controlled by the ordering of the human world?
If the landscape is capable of producing fear, then perhaps there are also human-built structures in the neighborhood which are able to negate that fear. Tuan claims that “every human construction––whether mental or material––is a component in a landscape of fear because it exists to contain chaos.” Is it then, perhaps, that human constructions themselves might perpetuate cycles of fear and chaos? And if so, how does one tear down these structures, while seeming to dangle above the earth, like Mboudjak, from the end of a metal chain?