I’ve decided it’s not fair to form an opinion of Alain Mabanckou based on only one book. Particularly one as unconventional as Memoirs of a Porcupine (which is narrated – appropriately – by a porcupine). It being my first experience with this author I’m in no position to pass judgement. For example, my calling him brilliant, amazing, genius, one of the most exciting authors I’ve read in years – might be considered premature. But I really don’t think it is.
Porcupine, our narrator, is a “harmful double”. He is the animal familiar of a practitioner of black magic. At the same time he reveals himself as a creature with a conscience – torn between loyalty and what he believes is right.
Memoirs of a Porcupine begins at the foot of a Baobab tree. Porcupine is obviously distressed. His master is dead. He is being hunted. He has committed horrible acts of which he is not proud. He and his master “eat” people. “Eat” means “kill”. And the two accomplices – porcupine and master – have committed over a hundred murders in the village where they live. Porcupine tells us (somewhat disingenuously) that it is not entirely their fault. There is a third member of their little family who demands to be fed.
This is a macabre story, as much a commentary on the evils of superstition as it is a fantastic tale of… well, of an anthropomorphized porcupine pouring out his soul to a tree. Despite his troubled past and questionable moral compass, Porcupine is completely engaging. His obvious grief for his master, his fear and his attempts to comfort himself are childlike and bizarrely touching. His view of the world is fascinating. Despite the circumstances our protagonist finds himself in: Memoirs of a Porcupine isn’t a sad or heavy read – just the opposite. It’s very entertaining. Not surprising from the author who’s referred to as “Africa’s Samuel Beckett”.
Alain Mabanckou is a French-Congolese author, who writes in French and currently resides (and teaches) in California. He’s won several awards, including the prestigious Prix Renaudot (for the novel reviewed here). In an interview published in the Summer, 2010 issue of BOMB Magazine Mabanckou speaks with the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina) about Memoirs of a Porcupine and its conception. The plot is based on actual myths from the African village where he grew up. Wainaina remembered similar stories from his own childhood. I got the impression Mabanckou’s sympathies, like mine, are with the porcupine.
It’s a sort of fable. The narrator is an animal that is also a serial killer—it’s a porcupine. The porcupine is the double of a man whose name is Kibandi. According to myth in Congo-Brazzaville, when you are born, you come into this world with an animal that is your double or totem. You will live the same life and will die on the same day. In my book the problem is that the man dies but the animal survives…The myth of the double exists not only in my own village; a lot of African readers have told me that in their country people also believe in having an animal as a double.
Mabanckou manages to develop a visually evocative narrative from a tightly tailored and carefully refined prose style. He’s been compared to the magical realists, and the premise of Memoirs is dark, violent and whimsical. The writing, though, is free of the flourishes characterising the work of other authors associated with the genre. Mabanckou has given Porcupine a voice that is both intimate, conversational and – rather than just dressing-up a human in animal clothes – preserves Porcupine’s porcupine-ity. Making it easy for readers to imagine the creature waddling about and waving its paws in the air.
While Mabanckou acknowledges his debt to classic French authors, he has clearly developed a technique all his own – twisting the French (and, with Helen Stevenson’s help, the English) language into variations of Congolese rhythms. The only punctuation he uses is the comma, with chapters ending on a word rather than a period. He uses his technique to seed the minds of Western readers’ with images, sounds and experiences they will probably never have in the flesh.
“I know now that thought is of the essence, it’s thought that gives rise to human grief, pity, remorse, even wickedness or goodness, and while my master brushed these feelings aside with a wave of his hand, I felt them after every mission, many’s the time my face was wet with tears, because, for porcupine’s sake, at times of great sadness or compassion, you get a lump somewhere right near your heart, your thoughts turn black, you regret your actions, the bad things you’ve done, but as I was only carrying out orders, devoting my life to my role as double, I managed to get a grip on my black thoughts, and tell myself, by way of comfort, that that there were worse things you could do in this life, I’d take a good deep breath, gnaw at a few manioc roots or palm nuts, try to get some sleep, tell myself tomorrow would be another day,”
Broken Glass is the companion novel to Memoirs of a Porcupine, also translated by Helen Stevensen. Broken Glass is the title as well as a character in and the narrator of the book. We learn at the end of Memoirs of a Porcupine that Broken Glass is also the (fictional) author of this novel, the manuscript of which was discovered and published posthumously. Somewhat convoluted, but I like the idea that Mabanckou may be creating a larger narrative. He’s definitely putting out a hugely respected body of work. Recently he took part in the A Room for London project, part of the Cultural Olympiad, in which authors are invited to take up residence for four days in a boat suspended over the Thames. In return they must write an essay on London, the Thames or Joseph Conrad. You see, the boat is a replica of the Roi des Belges – the boat from Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness. Having Alain Mabanckou there is both surreal and creates a nice symmetry – points which were not lost on the author. He discusses his thoughts on being chosen and reads from his essay in the August 9, 2012 Guardian Artangel Books podcast. It is perhaps the best installment of the series I’ve listened to so far.
Publisher: Berkeley, Soft Skull Press (2012)
ISBN: 978 1 59376 436 4