The bulk of Mutt-Lon’s The Blunder takes place in 1929, a time when, as he relates in his author’s note, “Cameroon was… under control of the League of Nations… with Great Britain and France administering separate parts of the former German colony.” 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 in such concentrations, the side effects can be severe. 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. Like nearly all the white characters in the book, Damienne is (initially at least) convinced of her supremacy, 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.
I found The Blunder’s nuanced deconstruction of these intersections between imperialism and race particularly effective. Other aspects 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 Amy B. Reid’s deft translation. I also enjoyed learning a bit of forgotten history. Worth a try.