Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, translated by Bienvu Sene Mongaba

Title: Mr. Fix-It
Author: Richard Ali A Mutu
Translator: Bienvu Sene Mongaba
Publisher: Phoneme Media, Los Angeles (2017)
ISBN: 978 1 944700 07 2

Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, a Congolese writer from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is a book I’m really excited about. It was originally written and published in Lingala, a language spoken by roughly 10 million people and almost exclusively in the DRC  and the Republic of Congo*.  The U.S. publisher, Phoneme Media, explained in an email that Mr. Fix-It was “put out by a publishing house based between Kinshasa and Brussels, run by Ali A Mutu’s translators.”  The house, Editions Mabiki, “publish textbooks used throughout the DRC, as well as a small number of fiction titles in both Lingala and French.” 

An excerpt from the novel (at 102 pages it’s really  more of a novella) was originally published in the anthology Africa39 in 2014. For those not familiar with the Africa39 project or its significance, it was “a partnership with Rainbow Book Club, celebrating Port Harcourt: UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 by identifying 39 of the most promising writers under the age of 40 with the potential and talent to define trends in the development of literature from Sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora”.  For context: Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie is also a contributor to the Africa39 anthology.

The title Mr. Fix-It is a play on the hero’s name, Ebamba, which  means “Mender” in Lingala. A misnomer, as this young man is anything but. His is a story about love, betrayal and loss. Ebamba is a sad-sack protagonist in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, and while much of what happens to him is beyond his control, if there is a bad decision to be made it seems likely he will be the one to make it.

The book opens with a dowry negotiation during which the bride’s mercenary family recites an ever-growing and ever more expensive list of demands. When Ebamba’s uncle (who is negotiating on behalf of his nephew) attempts to interject he is immediately cut off.

“But…”

“But, but… What are you arguing for? Are we going to haggle over this? Is this the market?”

“No, but…”

“What do you mean, ‘no but’? You have a problem with this? We aren’t even finished yet. The girl’s uncles haven’t spoken, or her mom. Her older brothers and sisters have yet to state their demands…”

Eyenga, the fiance, also attempts to protest the mercantile treatment of her potential marriage. But to no avail. Her mother explains that when she was young “they only asked for salt and some kola nut. It was the good old days when we lived according to the traditions of old. Now things have changed. When you have a daughter, you have a readymade treasure…” 

As bad as the situation is for the couple, it’s hard not to laugh at the machinations of their friends, relatives and neighbors. Ali A Mutu balances humor against hard truths about the economic situation for young people like Ebamba and Eyenga, caught in a world transitioning from tradition to Capitalism. Jobs in Kinshasa are hard to come by and so, despite being intelligent and well-educated, Ebamba is unemployed.  There is no hope of his fulfilling Eyenga’s family’s list of goods. He is past due on his rent and avoids homelessness only because his landlady has decided he will make the perfect husband for her daughter, Maguy. Maguy wholeheartedly agrees with her mother and initiates a campaign of seduction Ebamba is too weak to resist for long. It all ends in tragedy, to absolutely no one’s surprise.

Ali A Mutu has a gift for writing funny, back-and-forth banter and takes full advantage of that talent. Mr. Fix-It reads like a genre novel, though it’s a genre I’ve never encountered. A rom-tragi-com, perhaps? Whatever it is, it’s entertaining as hell and goes by much too fast.
Mid-way through the most wonderful thing happens. Ebamba and Eyenga go on a date, and while sitting at a bar begin to sing to each other. For nine pages, Ali A Mutu transcribes the lyrics to Cheval by the Congolese Soukus (a type of dance music) singer Koffi olomide.  A little digging turned up this video on YouTube. It’s a duet, and the singers have beautiful voices… I recommend giving it a listen.  

 

 

Cheval is just one example of the many ways which Mr. Fix-It feels like it’s been written for a local audience. In some ways it reminds me of Alain Mabanckou’s work, though less cosmopolitan in scope. Ebamba’s trials and travails call to mind the journey of the hero of Black Bazaarin particular, perhaps because both men write with humor and empathy about their characters’ attempts at navigating relationships. But, despite some similarities of spirit, Richard Ali A Mutu’s prose remains distinctly and uniquely his own. Uncluttered by preoccupations with style and concerned only with serving the story, it’s easy to imagine Mr. Fix-It as a graphic novel.

These are exciting times for readers interested in contemporary African fiction. Writers like Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo), Wilfried N’Sondé (Republic of Congo), Naivo (Madagascar), Ondjaki (Angola), Amir Taj Al-Sir (Sudan) and the aforementioned Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo) are all available in English and can be easily found online. All thanks to the work and dedication of small university and independent presses.

 

 

*For context: There currently 570 million Spanish speakers, 300-400 million English speakers, and 1.2 billion native Chinese speakers. The population of North Carolina is estimated at 10,273,419 people.

 

 

 

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel (translated from the original French by John Cullen)

Blogger Warning:  HERE BE SPOILERS!

Ahhh… absurdism.  It’s so damn European!  Think Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett (o.k., so he was Irish), Franz Kafka, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre.  It’s a genre that includes classic books like The Myth of Sisyphus, The Stranger, Waiting for Godot, No Exit, Rhinoceros and now, The Investigation.

The Absurdist genre – in all its forms – is a commentary on the ridiculousness of the human condition.   It also, interestingly, involves an unexpected amount of physical comedy.  (The French fascination with slapstick and Woody Allen baffles me, by the way).  The Investigation is pretty much a textbook example.  Whether this is a strength or weakness is really a matter of personal taste.

The plot can be quickly summarized.  The Investigator has been sent to investigate the Enterprise.  Multiple impediments are put in the way of his investigation, placing him in one preposterous situation after another.  This continues until the end of the novel, at which point the Investigator (and the readers) question the protagonist’s sanity.  Suddenly, he is transported into a surreal landscape where he speaks to a God-Surrogate, who in turn reinforces the characterization of an un-caring (at best) or impotent (at worst) higher being.

All fairly standard in the Absurdist’s ouevre.

Claudel delves deeper into the genre/philosophy – not just speaking about the absurdity of life in general, but like Camus exploring the subject of suicide.   The Investigator has been sent to the Enterprise to investigate an unusual high incidence of suicides among the workers.  As the Investigator’s mission is thwarted at every juncture we begin to see why death might seem like a viable option.  (And if you find my constant use of “the Investigator”  annoying, this it nothing compared to the book).

Meanwhile, as the philosophy and plot thickens, Claudel introduces us to a cast of eccentric and memorable characters.  The Giantess, the Policeman, the Watchman, the Founder… to name just a few.  My personal favorite is the Manager.

The Investigator, not daring to disappoint the Manager, nodded his head.

“Of course  you know . . . . Oh, this is all so . . . But I’m wandering!”

He clapped his hands, sprang up nimbly, danced a few steps, caught one foot in the thick rug, and almost fell.  “Look at me!” he cried.  “I have resources, don’t I?  I’m not on my way out, not yet, despite my age! What do you think?”

The Investigator was getting weaker.  His armchair had turned into a great mouth that was gradually swallowing him, and he found the man before him, who was jumping around like an athlete warming up, even more disturbing than the Policeman in the Hotel.

The Manager began to do entrechats, up-and-down bounces, long leaps. He piroetted and ran to the back of the room, where he made the sign of the cross, took a run-up, and charged at his desk, over which he attempted to jump and which he nearly managed to clear, except that at the last moment, when he was suspended in the air, his left foot struck the massive black marble inkwell and he crashed heavily against the glass wall.

While no expert, Ive read a fair amount of Kafka, Sartre and Camus.  Maybe thats why I felt a sense of déjà vu as I read The Investigation. The Chaplin-esque situations the Investigator finds himself in aren’t cliché.  Some are even very funny.  Unfortunately the ideas and themes that Claudel is working with I feel like I’ve heard/seen them all before.    It reminded me of a production of Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, starring John Goodman, which I saw years ago at the Delacorte Theater.  The play is Wilder at his wackiest. Goodman was brilliant and loud. All through my reading of The Investigation I kept remembering that play, its overblown comedy and heavy-handed (yet still incomprehensible) biblical references that in many ways overshadowed the plot.  Like Wilder’s play, this novel is saved by incredible writing.  Claudel’s style and Cullens translation are lovely, truly lovely.  The fact that I continued reading long after I knew I’d heard this story before is testament to that.

Philippe Claudel is a gifted author.  His prose is light, entertaining and fresh.  His imagery is vibrant and cinematic.  The situational comedy is good.  Which makes what Im about to write so puzzling.  Things became interesting – at least for me – when the character of the Psychiatrist was introduced.  I believed that we would be forced to take a hard look not just at the society through which the Investigator was moving, but also at the kind of man that society inevitably creates.

And then, suddenly, Claudel veers off.  Chucks the whole thing out the window and… well…  remember how LOST ended?  Yeah.  Something like that.

So, despite the novels originality and Claudels obvious talent, when the ending of The Investigation arrives it does so with a resounding (and uninspiring) “Click”.

Publisher:  Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 385 53534 2

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

From Away by David Carkeet (Advance Review Copy)

From Away is a different kind of mystery novel. It opens with Denny Braintree on his way back from assignment for the Fearless Modeler, the model train magazine he writes for.   He crashes his rental car into a highway median and ends up stranded overnight in Montpelier, Vermont.   Locals mistake him for Homer Dumpling – the hometown favorite who’d abruptly left without a word 3 years earlier.  Denny, being Denny, immediately decides he likes being Homer.  Mostly because everyone likes Homer (a new experience for Denny, who nobody seems to like).  Partly because the next morning Denny Braintree becomes the chief suspect in a murder investigation.  From Away contains multiple mysteries – there’s the murder, discovering what happened to the real Homer and the biggest mystery of all… what is the deal with Denny?

David Carkeet has created a 330-pound hero who isn’t even trying to be sympathetic.  Within the first chapter it’s apparent that not only is Denny obnoxious, he knows it.  He’s obnoxious by choice – to get a reaction and to make life more interesting.   This self-awareness disarms you and redeems him.  It also adds a certain amount of comedic value to the situations Denny finds himself in.

The trooper looked him up and down.  “Were you wearing a seatbelt?”

“You’re asking me that because of my size, aren’t you?  Driving while chubby – is that a crime?”

The trooper stood up straight.  He turned and looked down the highway in one direction, then in the other.  He came back to Denny, this time squatting at the open door instead of leaning in.   “EMS is on the way.  They’ll check you out.”

“I’ve got a plane to catch.”

The trooper bounced lightly on his haunches, up and down, as if exercising.  Denny could never do that.  “I don’t think you’re going to make that plane.”

“Fine.  But I want to get going.”

The trooper stopped bouncing.  “Are you refusing medical treatment?”

Denny liked the sound of that.  “Yes.  I’m refusing medical treatment.  Does that make me an asshole?”

“No, sir.” The trooper paused.  He paused quite a while.  And then he said, “That doesn’t make you an asshole.”

Denny had to hand it to him.  The pause had been good, of professional caliber, really.  He looked from the trooper to the men in the front seat.  Without moving or making a sound, they were chuckling.  The amusement was contained, effectively sealed from view, but there could be no mistake.  The Yankees were  laughing at him.

This isn’t a book about character evolution.  The Denny you encounter in the beginning isn’t all that different from the one you’ll leave at the end.  He doesn’t get any nicer – as he says himself:  he likes the way he is and doesn’t get why other people don’t.  What changes is the readers’ perceptions.  As the story gains momentum you’ll start to understand Denny and come to see who he is reflected in the people around him.   You’ll want him to succeed – to get out of the mess he’s put himself in, to make friends, to keep up the facade of being Homer.  There’s a stark honesty in how Carkeet has written his hero.  Like Ignatius J. Reilley (A Confederacy of Dunces) or the Binewski children (Geek Love) or Tom Robbins entire bibliography of characters, Denny is an odd egg not without certain charms.  He may be a bit weird, but he’s no hypocrite.  He just sees the world from the outside looking in, which is the same way he explores his model train layouts. The more we learn about Denny and Homer and the people of Montpelier, the easier it is to appreciate Denny’s unique perspective.

From Away contains quite a bit of physical comedy.  The kind more common in films than books.  Carkeet manages to translate it nicely into print, resulting in some hilarious scenes.  He’s created a large supporting cast of characters as goofy as Denny and a plot that is rock solid.  He’s got great comedic timing.  What’s best, though, is how much of From Away is unexpected.  It you read a lot of mysteries, you already understand what a rare thing that is.  David Carkeet is an author with a big, bold voice telling a story with surprising subtlety.  His clues are to be found in the small details – not in conspicuously placed plot points.   From Away is a mystery that stands out from the crowd, that will make you laugh and repeatedly catch you by surprise.  It may take a little while to warm up to Denny, but once you do there’s no going back.

Publisher:  The Overlook Press, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 59020 304 0

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine