Terroir in a novel, unless it’s a historical novel, isn’t always as important as we’d like to make it. The plot seldom hinges on it. What I mean is – for all the hype around Nordic Crime, change the place & character names in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and it could be set almost anywhere. Bassman’s We Monks & Soldiers might be predicting various nations’ apocalyptic future. And none of Yoko Ogawa’s short stories in Revenge scream Japan, even if her prose does.
But an Alain Mabanckou novel is different. He writes very specifically about Africans, whether in their home country or abroad. And if you were to change that there is no book. Even when American literary influences sneak in he re-works it in the scope of his experiences. In a 2007 interview on Bookslut, Mabanckou acknowledged his admiration for Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. He carefully points out that the protagonist of African Psycho couldn’t be more different from the urbane investment banker Patrick Bateman. Each man is a product of his environment. And the Little Congo is a long way from Manhattan.
But not from Paris.
Société des ambianceurs et des personnes élégantes, Les Sapeurs or Le Sap for short, originated in Congo-Brazzaville (aka Little or French Congo – not to be confused with the Big Congo of King Leopold’s Ghost) where Mabanckou is from and many of his stories are set. It is a fashion movement for men that centers around expensive designer clothing – flamboyant suits with cascading pocket handkerchiefs, walking sticks, Eton-collared shirts and bow ties at one end of the spectrum; modern gear from Dolce & Gabana, Japanese designers whose names I don’t recognize and Dior at the other. There’s been a boom in articles and photo books on these men in recent years, in which you’ll inevitably find the word “dandies”. Because just as important as what Le Sap wears, is how he wears it. It’s a club for high-style and personal elegance that, we’re told in the latest Mabanckou novel to be released in the States*, that the Congolese brought to France. Not vice-versa.
I make a point of wearing a suit because you’ve got to “keep up appearances”, as we say among the Society for Ambient People and Persons of Elegance, SAPPE, which, without wanting to be contentious, is an invention from back home, born in the Bacongo district of Brazzaville,towards the Total roundabout. We’re the ones who exported “Sappe” to Paris, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, because lately there are so many false prophets swarming these streets in the City of Light, to the point where it’s getting difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The narrator of the 2009 novel Black Bazaar (the English edition was released in 2012 by Serpent’s Tail and has been longlisted for the IFFP) is both a member of Les Sapeurs and, like it, an import from Congo-Brazzaville. He’s lived for over a decade in Paris. He goes by the name “the Buttologist” amongst his friends at Le Jip’s Bar for reasons that shouldn’t need to be explained.
The Buttologist is alternately writing and inhabiting events. His girlfriend, a French woman he calls “Original Colour”, has run off with a tom-tom player from a traditional music group. She’s taken their baby daughter with her. The Buttologist, left behind in the now empty studio apartment they once shared, buys a typewriter and sets about writing. He writes about what he knows. Giving voice not only to his own story, but to his friends’ and neighbors’ – immigrants who’ve all come to France from former French colonies in Africa, the Middle East and the East Indies. And (like a Tarantino film) almost every character in Black Bazaar gets a soliloquy in which to air their opinions – usually on the “colonial legacy”. These orators are invariably eccentric, cocky and deeply convinced that their view is the correct one. They deliver their speeches from atop the soapbox in pitch perfect dialogue. So perfect that it’s easy to imagine you’re eavesdropping from a stool at Jip’s. Mabanckou is not telling you about this world, he’s asking you to become a part of it.
I wondered why Haitians are either brilliant writers or taxi drivers for life in New York and Miami. And when they’re writers they are in exile. Do writers always have to live in another country, and preferably be forced to live there so that they’ve got things to write about and other people can analyse the influence of exile on their writing?…
…These Haitian writers are like hunted birds. They’ve had more than thirty-two coups d’état back home and not a country in the world has equalled this record yet. With each coup d’état, flocks of writers have emigrated. They left everything behind, setting out with nothing apart from their manuscripts and their driving licence. I wish I’d been born Haitian so I could be a writer in exile who understands the song of the migrating bird, but I don’t have any manuscripts, or a driving licence to become, in the worst-case scenario, a taxi driver in the streets of Paris …
Black Bazaar is filled with passages like this – delivered with haunting prose and a wry humor. Everything is taken in stride. The narrator and his friends are always adapting, without surrendering their sense of who they are. As a character tells him at the end of the book, “Above all, you must never forget your own country, never…”
Alain Mabanckou and the Buttologist have a lot in common. Both were born in Congo-Brazzaville. Both immigrated to Paris as a young men and spent a lot of time at Le Jip’s, a bar frequented by African expats on rue St. Denis. (The author currently lives in America, a country where his writing is disgracefully under-appreciated). And, like his narrator, Alain Mabanckou has written about what he knows. Whether he’s describing the African diaspora, the lives of Congolese immigrants in France and their conflicting opinions on the legacy of colonialism. Or explaining le Sappeurs or the music of Papa Wemba. He does it with warmth, and more importantly with authority. Alain Mabanckou is an author for who terroir is everything.
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail, London (2012)
ISBN: 978 1 8476 5657 5
*only available digitally