I had been meaning to read Mabanckou’s work for a while having heard great things about the Congolese born author/ NYU Professor of French Literature, who was Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2015 . The work is a translation by Helen Stevenson of the Original French.
The setting of the story is a Congolese bar called ‘Credit Gone West’ in the town of Trois-Cents, which is owned by a man called Stubborn Snail. Broken Glass is a 64- year old disgraced former teacher with a penchant for Sovinco Red Wine (read alcoholic) is asked to write about the many characters that frequent Stubborn Snail’s popular bar as a record for posterity.
Broken Glass, our narrator, is in blissful denial about his drinking problem which was responsible for the loss of his job and wife. His late mother also drowned herself due to a drinking problem. When a road-side food seller (Mama Mfoa) pleads with him to stop drinking, he is quick to lie.
‘I say I’ve not started drinking yet, I’ve not touched a drop of alcohol since I got up this morning and I laugh even as I utter this lie which is as big as an African dictator’s second home…’
This odd comic political satire with crass imagery (every other page has a vivid reference to shitting or pissing) captures very African issues with raw indulgence. Everything from corruption and education to religion to race is explored generously. The classic preoccupation West Africans have with evil spirits is explored through Mama Mfoa’s food.
‘…that’s why we like her, all the rest is literature, bad Black-African literature, the kind you find on the banks of the Seine, its just babble, people talk but they still eat their local dog or cat kebabs, which is incredible, and they even say that the oil she uses for frying is a mixture of her spittle and piss, and that’s why her kebabs taste like those fishballs you get in Japanese cooking, but its just a wind- up.
The story is full of colourful characters such as ‘The Printer’ who boasts constantly about having ‘done France’ and married a white French woman and ‘The Guy in Pampers’ who was fond of prostitutes until his wife (also apparently cavorting with a religious cult leader) lied to the police so he would be thrown in jail. It is there he is raped until he has to wear pampers permanently.
I found it interesting that all the female characters were essentially the same ball busting, aggressive, man-bashing stereotype of an African woman, from Robinette the burly bar regular who challenges Casimir to a pissing contest to Angelica (Diabolica) Broken Glass’ own wife and The Pampers guys wife who won’t just chill and allow her husband to keep screwing prostitutes. Two exceptions are the far more minor prostitute Broken Glass hooks up with -Alice *insert creepy wonderland reference*, and the Mama Mfoa (aka Bald Soprano) who sells food opposite Credit Gone West.
While it is definitely an interesting read, I didn’t find the main character’s goal of filling this notebook with stories worthy. The story reminds me, though only slightly of Ghanaian Author, Ayi Kwei Armah’s ‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’ just far more playful with characterisation and lenient with its tone.There certainly are a lot of intricate aspects of Congolese culture explored especially in respect of the impact and aftermath of colonialism.
Have you read it? Do let me know what you thought or what sort of Modern African fiction you enjoy.