Reviewed by Anderson Tepper
Alain Mabanckou, the young Congolese author of African Pyscho, seems intent on subverting all the clichés about African writing—and breaking as many taboos as he can along the way. African Pyscho, published here in 2007, was a winking, rollicking rejoinder to Brett Easton Ellis’s American bestseller, this time centered on the obsessive Grégoire, a hapless, would-be serial killer in a ramshackle African mega-slum, dubbed “He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot.” As a confessional, it purred along with spirited digressions and rants against government incompetence, glaring poverty, loose women, leaky sewage, petty crime, and stray mutts. As a crime novel it was actually something of a shaggy dog story: a diatribe about the perfect crime that is never actually committed.
Mabanckou’s latest novel, Broken Glass, again provides a view of Africa’s urban bottom-dwellers—Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” updated for a new generation—with a full-throated sense of glee and irreverence. Broken Glass himself is a sixty-four-year-old former teacher who has become a bit too enamored with his red wine. After being suspended from the classroom for erratic behavior, he becomes a regular at the local bar Credit Gone West, run by a certain Stubborn Snail. (Mabanckou’s characters tend to go by colorful nicknames.) Before long, Broken Glass, who once harbored literary aspirations, is enlisted by Stubborn Snail to fill a notebook with the stories of Credit Gone West and its denizens, “to record, witness and pass on the history of the place.” Like Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco, Broken Glass is, essentially, about a voiceless community’s struggle to reclaim itself through the printed word. As Broken Glass describes the mission Stubborn Snail has entrusted him with:
“ . . . when I asked why he was so set on this notebook, he said he didn’t want Credit Gone West just to vanish one day, and added that people in this country have no sense of the importance of memory, that the days when grandmothers reminisced from their deathbeds was gone now, this is the age of the written word, that’s all that’s left, the spoken word’s just black smoke, wild cat’s piss, the boss of Credit Gone West doesn’t like ready-made phrases like ‘in Africa, when an old person dies, a library burns,’ every time he hears that worn-out cliché he gets mad, he’ll say ‘depends which old person, don’t talk crap, I only trust what’s written down’ . . .”
And so begins Broken Glass’s attempt to capture whole the history of not just Credit Gone West but that of the outlying Trois-Cents neighborhood and the entire godforsaken country since gaining its independence—in one messy, overlong, looping sentence, one giant j’accuse, with “twisted words, incoherent words, nonsensical words . . . in this shit-poor language of mine.” The bar itself is something of a local cause célèbre, having withstood heavy opposition from the very start from corrupt officials and goons “armed with iron bars from Zanzibar, with clubs and cudgels from mediaeval Christendom, poisoned spears from the time of Chaka Zulu, sickles and hammers from the Communist block . . . Molotov cocktails from May ’68, machetes left over from a killing spree in Rwanda . . .”
But if the bar is miraculously still standing and even thriving, the same can’t necessarily be said for its clientele. Broken Glass treats us to an assortment of lost and shattered souls, including “the Pampers guy,” who now needs to wear adult diapers after being repeatedly violated at the infamous Makala prison for the past several years. And then there’s “the Printer,” who was living the good life with his white wife in Paris and overseeing a multiracial printing-plant staff, before his illegitimate teenage son reappeared in his life and destroyed it all. And there’s more: Mouyeké, a “sorcerer-crook” who trolls for desperate suckers at the bar; Robinette, an overly plump prostitute who can outpiss any beer guzzler; and Casimir, a suave mystery man who ultimately proves to be her match.
Broken Glass slowly divulges more of his own story as the book progresses—how he was left by his wife, Angelica (or “Diabolica”), due to his drinking habit; abandoned by his jazz-loving father when he was young, only to be orphaned when his mother drowns in the nearby Tchinouka river. In fact, the river, rather than the bar, exerts an increasing pull on Broken Glass as his writing project slowly draws to a close. More and more, his solipsistic ramblings are centered around an urge to abandon his unruly text and reunite with his mother’s spirit beneath the Tchinouka. Are these the suicidal ravings of a sad old drunk? Or the final call of a failed literateur?
Broken Glass’s bouts of morbid self-absorption, ultimately, help to provide a counterweight to some of the novel’s zanier scatological shenanigans. But Mabanckou clearly revels in the mash-up of his characters and their antics—this is a boozy, bawdy, urine-soaked book. Don’t be fooled, though: Mabanckou has his eyes on the literary firmament, too. He’s won the Prix Renaudot in France for another novel, Memoirs of a Porcupine, which will be published next here in the U.S. And one of the many pleasures of Broken Glass is the way Mabanckou has scattered literary references through the book’s screed, creating something of a treasure hunt for titles such as The Famished Road, Petals of Blood, God’s Bits of Wood, Satanic Verses, A Confederacy of Dunces, and The Catcher in the Rye, among many more. (A marking of his literary turf, so to speak.) Mabanckou is not the only one writing with verve and bite about Africa now—the Kenyan Binyavanga Wainana also sounded the charge with his satirical 2005 Granta article “How to Write About Africa”—but he is certainly one of the most wildly inventive and entertaining.
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