Alphabet of the Night by Jean-Euphèle Milcé (translated from the original French by Christopher Moncrieff)

Alphabet of the NightThere’s a passage in Alain Mabanckou’s Black Bazaar where he compares expatriate Haitian writers to “hunted birds”.

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 …

Jean-Euphèle Milcé is one of those “hunted birds” Mabanckou refers to.  Born in Haiti, he both attended and taught school there.  Currently he  lives in “voluntary exile” (Milcé’s words) in Switzerland with his wife and children.  His novella (published by Pushkin Press) deals with loss; grief; displacement; and what it means to abandon one’s country.  Alphabet of the Night contains many beautiful moments which form a fractured portrait of a man and his country.

The man, the book’s protagonist, is Jeremy Assaël – a gay, Jewish shopkeeper whose lover is murdered in the street in front of Jeremy’s shop. It is his breaking point.  Engulfed by grief Jeremy leaves Port-au-Prince and travels back to his childhood home.  He is searching for his friend Fresnal, who disappeared suddenly and mysteriously several years ago.  Jeremy wishes to learn, definitively, whether Fresnal is alive or dead.  His quest for the truth about his friend becomes a spiritual journey which forces him to confront the truth about his place in the country he considers home.

The book is told primarily from Jeremy’s point of view.  Each chapter begins with the date and time, like journal entries.  And almost every chapter ends with a radio bulletin, written in italics, describing the deteriorating state of the country.  These bulletins are the best bits of the book.  They contain a frenetic urgency and gallows humor which rings true.  They also form a welcome crack in the fugue state of Jeremy’s thoughts. We spend the first two-thirds of the book trapped inside Jeremy’s head attempting to follow his densely written, stream-of-conscious style narrative.  It’s after the final third that the story (and landscape) opens up and there is forward movement in the plot.

Haiti often reminds me of a train station, or airport terminal, or any other node that men pass through on their way to or from someplace else.  It’s population is constantly in flux. Prior to independence French planters and African slaves poured into the French colony Saint-Domingue by the hundreds of thousands.  When revolution came the mulatto and remaining French planters fled in droves, seeking refuge in places as unlikely as Philadelphia (bringing Yellow Fever with them).   And in the 20th century the frequent and violent changes in government, natural disasters and a 77% poverty rate has sparked an influx of aid workers and a diaspora of Haitians who seek new homes in cities around the globe.

During WWII Haiti became a safe haven for many Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.  This is perhaps how Jeremy’s family came to the island.  The Haitian government  offered Visas to Jewish refugees at a time when other countries refused.  Some stayed on (though today the Jewish population has dwindled into the double digits).  Milcé uses this concept of “being a Jew” to explore a larger theme.  There’s an elegant parallel between the “wandering Jew” and the Haitian diaspora.  Jeremy first leaves his shop, then his city, and ultimately must decide whether or not to leave his country.  He returns to the same touchstones  – he is a Jew; his family has been in Haiti for three generations; he comes from a line of shopkeepers – without finding solace.  Jeremy’s thoughts loop back on themselves.  They become repetitive, though never to the point of becoming contrived.

Morning found me down at the harbour, by a sea that was pursuing an old, everyday wave. It caught me with my head in hands that were still warm with desire.  Its rhythm stood bolt upright in my path.  I have a horror of the sea. It is too closely linked to my family history. How many Jews have made a destiny for themselves out of fantasies about the ocean swell?  I have no right to leave. The sea reminds me to much of running away, of stories told to one horizon after another.  My family tradition is a bottle thrown by a chain of events, trailing behind it a steam of discriminations crammed together in every harbour in the world.

Instinctively I step back from the sea.  How can a whole race make an entry in their diary which might involve being tossed about by floods? To my way of thinking, exile is that profound self-perception that comes after every journey into the events and places nearest me.

Jeremy is a man four-times displaced.  In addition to being Jewish: he is white in a predominantly black country; a wealthy man selling to the poor; and a homosexual.  He is reminded repeatedly of his outsider status.  Yet the idea of leaving tears him apart.  There is no sense of him being uncomfortable or at a loss as he travels around the island.  Haiti is the only home he’s ever known, but it becomes clear that the only true ties he has to it are his memories.

I believe Alphabet of the Night is Milcé’s first novel.   He took part in a panel at the PEN World Voices Festival on the Critic’s Global Voice this past Summer and was charming, funny, intelligent and (despite having to speak through a translator) incredibly eloquent.  Which led me to buy his book after the event.  Alphabet of the Night delivered on my expectations in that you can open it to any page and find lovely, lyrical prose. But as a whole this small novella never quite came together for me.  The sentences are disjointed, particularly in the early pages.  Too much of the plot is spent treading water.  And I have some serious concerns about the quality of the translation (which at times reads awkwardly and is too self-conscious).

Despite these flaws I recommend reading Alphabet of the Night.  Milcé has written an original story, with an unusual character and often lovely prose.  And, equally important, read it because novels set in contemporary Haiti are difficult to find. Haiti is country that weaves drunkenly back & forth between extremes:  violence and idealism, hope and cynicism, incredible beauty and incredible depravity.  It  is also a place of great hope and courage.  With that in mind, anything about this small island’s – half an island, really – rich history is worth reading.

Publisher:  Pushkin Press, London (2007)
ISBN:  978 1 90128 5 765

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Eléctrico W by Hervé le Tellier, translated from the original French by Adriana Hunter’s talk about Oulipo.  It’s a French movement that includes authors and mathematicians who use constraints when creating literature.  For example:  writing an entire novel without using the letter “a”.  Or using palindromes.  Or starting  every sentence with the same word or phrase.  Or, my particular favorite, replacing every noun with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary (this constraint has its own name:  N+7).

Italo Calvino was a member of Oulipo – which is why If On A Winters Night A Traveler is a book of only beginnings.  As was Oskar Pastior, Duchamp and Georges Perec.  I consider Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch Oulipian, but discovered he was not a member.  That book, though, shares Oulipo’s fascination with puzzles – so it’s not surprising that Cortázar wrote it while living in Paris.

Hervé Le Tellier is a member.  Though, in terms of constraints the one he used for Eléctrico W seems a bit weak.  The novel follows the structure of Homer’s Odyssey.  And while I’m by no means an expert, it does so in such a vague way that I couldn’t find the parallels.*  Be that as it may – puzzles and games and Oulipo all put aside – Eléctrico W is an entertaining novel.

It was 1985, nearly twenty-seven years ago.  At the time I didn’t feel like showing it to publishers.  I did give it a title, though, and this morning, with the sun taking its time coming up, it is called Eléctrico W, the name of a tramline in Lisbon.  But that has been a provisional title for so long.

This paragraph is added in because, according to the computer, the manuscript comprised 53,278 words.  I wanted it to be a prime number.  Out of some superstition.  So I added an adjective here, and adverb there, I don’t even remember where.  And this is where the notebook starts again.

In these opening paragraphs we are introduced to the narrator, a middle aged journalist named Vincent Balmer.  He’s recently moved to Lisbon, leaving behind his life in Paris and an affair that had run its course.  He’s kept his job, though.  The French newspaper, which still employs him, has him cover  the trial of a serial killer.  He is partnered with a photojournalist, Antonio Flores, who he knows from the Paris office.  The two men spend nine days together.  One night  Flores reveals to Vincent that he grew up in Lisbon… eventually telling the story of his star-crossed love for a girl called Duck.  The story captures Vincent’s imagination (“imagination” being the key word) and he attempts to track down Duck with the vague idea of reuniting the pair.  Eléctrico W is the story of Vincent’s quest over those nine days he and Flores are assigned to the murder trial.

Vincent’s voice is introspective.  Sedate.   He does not seem to be subject to emotional peaks or valleys – regardless of what he sometimes claims.  While he  describes himself as more conventionally handsome than Antonio Flores, he lacks that male version of “jolie laide” which makes the other man irresistable to women.  In face, Vincent learns that Flores is currently sleeping with the woman who had broken up with him/Vincent in Paris.  She,  Irene, eventually joins the two men in Lisbon.  Despite all of Vincent’s professed passion for Irene his attempt at revenge seems half-hearted at best.  Based on my previous reading experience, Vincent is part of that long tradition of utterly charming but romantically (and otherwise) inept Frenchmen whom French authors seem to adore.  A cross between Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and Gérard Depardieu.

Vincent also has a hobby.  Interspersed throughout the book are short stories which he is translating, written by the fictional Portuguese author Jaime Montestrela.  Montestrela who appears in many of Le Tellier’s books.

In the town of Chiannesi (Umbria, Italy), on Shrove Tuesday, it was customary for every inhabitant to swap minds with another, women played at being men, children being parents.  This swap included animals, and mice could be seen toying cruelly with cats.  The municipality brought a definitive end to this custom in 1819, when the swap between cows and flies led to a crisis.

A small step above flash-fiction, these relatively straight-forward tales (we’re told that Montestrela might have intended them as allegories, but as Vincent doesn’t seem too worried about what they represent why should we?) provide “air” between the denser, atmospheric prose that makes up most of the novel.

A cool breeze was blowing and I shivered in the shade of the cypress tree.  Graves seen in sunshine are never entirely melancholy.  There’s always a hint of life to distract the eye, a blade of grass glimmering, a carefree chaffinch pecking at the ground, a black beetle with heavy mandibles crawling over the gravel.  And when graves have no story to tell, we don’t linger over them.

All the writing, as translated by Adriana Hunter, is stylistically elegant.  As are the characters.  Vincent, in particular, is a flawed but sympathetic protagonist.  And Le Tellier’s plot nicely mirrors the tenets of the Oulipo movement.  Just like an Oulipian work is more than what is superficially apparent (though Eléctrico W still functions very nicely at that level if you aren’t interesting in delving into it) so is there more to the story of Antonio and Duck than meets the eye.  Early on Vincent tells us how at the end of their time together he looked at Antonio and “… no longer saw a thirty-year old man in flesh and blood sitting beside me on that seat with its cracked leather, but a character, a character from a book.”  He projects his own narrative onto these two people, much like Le Tellier has projected the structure of The Odyssey onto this book.  It complicates things, but not in a bad way.   It causes confusion and, at times, surprising reveals.  I wouldn’t call Vincent an unreliable narrator, just a misguided one.  And, to my mind, all the more interesting because of it.

Punlisher: Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 534 1

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* While writing this review I began to think that it’s not the plot of The Odyssey that Le Tellier is following, but the actual physical structure – words, lines, letters, phrasing.  This is purely guesswork on my part, though. I’ve found nothing to support it.

Interview with Jordan Stump, Translator

Jordan Stump is Antoine Volodine’s translator.  He’s many other things – professor at the University of Nebraska, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the author of numerous articles… today he’s a guest of this blog.  I’m both honored and grateful to him for taking time out of his busy semester to answer my questions.

Jordan, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.  My first question is:  how did you first come to read Volodine (and company)?  Was it as a translator or as a reader, or as both?  What interested you in the author and which is your favorite novel?

I was in Paris, looking over the new arrivals in my favorite bookstore (Compagnie), and my eye was caught by Des anges mineurs.  It was published as part of the Editions du Seuil’s “Fiction et Cie” series, which is always a good sign, and I liked the odd look of the very short chapters and the strange names that served as their titles.  I bought it, went off to a bench in the Luxembourg gardens and started reading, and I was immediately enthralled.  I’m always reading as a translator—I can’t read a book without wondering if I want to translate it, and how I might do it—but when a book really grabs me I forget that, of course, and approach it simply as a fervent reader.  I loved the strangeness of that book, the very peculiar blend of “sci-fi” (for want of a better term) and Tibetan ritual and the grim realities of existence at its most banal.  And I loved the humor, of course, and the deep sadness.  By the time I finished it I’d decided it would be my next translation project.  That book—Minor Angels, in English—remains one of my favorites, but I also love Bardo or not Bardo and Nos animaux préférés; those latter two haven’t yet been translated into English, but perhaps their time will come.

Have you had the opportunity to consult Antoine Volodine during the translation process or do you have to resort to other sources?  From what I’ve read on the internet (and of course, if it’s on the internet it must be true!) Volodine is one of the author’s many pseudonyms – which makes me wonder if he’s trying to retain a certain amount of anonymity.  I realize that it’s common for translators to work without the author’s input (for example if he/she is dead), but I would think it can be particularly difficult if the author is alive but unavailable.

Oh, he’s very available, and extraordinarily helpful.  He’s a very open, unassuming guy, funny, enthusiastic, fond of extremely modest Chinese restaurants: nothing of the enigmatic loner about him.  I always try to work with the authors I translate (in part because I’m a big fan, and meeting an author whose work I love is a real thrill for me), but I think Volodine has been the most helpful of the bunch: always eager to hear my questions, and intent on coming up with concrete answers.

I’ve read that Volodine is also a Russian translator (though some readers believe the author he “translates” is just another pseudonym). Do you detect a Russian influence in his writing?  And if so is it something you consider while working on your translations?

It’s hard for me to say that there’s a strong specifically Russian influence, but it is most certainly true that there is a very strong influence of a kind of non-specific foreignness.  Somewhere he says something to the effect that his books read (or should read) as though they were translations from another language.  There is still, in France, a certain notion of “literary style,” and that’s absolutely what he avoids, which isn’t to say that he writes in some authentic vernacular, either: he writes in a language that is entirely approachable but at the same time marked by certain quirks.  That’s what you have to think about when you’re translating him: you don’t want to turn him into poetry, and you don’t want to flatten out his writing so that it reads effortlessly.   As I remember, I asked him if he had any thoughts about what the general tone of Minor Angels should sound like (that’s a question I always ask writers); he answered, “Tired.”  I see exactly what he means, but try getting that across in a translation!

Are you ever concerned about how the book you’re working on functions in relationship to Volodine’s other books – or do you approach every book as an individual, stand-alone project?

I look on them as stand-alone works.  His output is vast and varied, and any scholar of his writing should be interested in the whole of it, and how each part functions with respect to the others.  But they work perfectly well on their own—you don’t need to know anything about Volodine or post-exoticism or anything to fall in love with his books—and that’s how I prefer to think of them.

Speaking of post-exoticism – is there a seminal text that provides the key to this movement?  For example, Le post-exotisme en dix leçons  is the one title I keep coming across again and again.   Is it a mistake to believe that all his work is concerned with/falls under the category of post-exoticism or does he also write stand-alone novels?

I’m not sure there really is a seminal text.  Le post-exotisme en dix leçons is a wonderful book, and a useful addition, but (predictably, I suppose) it doesn’t answer many questions, or give many explicit lessons.  Post-exoticism is (to my mind at least) a genre that defies explicit definition.  Some readers will want to see all his works in that context, but it would be terrible if you had to know all about post-exoticism to appreciate his books.  Thankfully, that’s not how it is at all: any one of his books can be read, can fully signify, can offer an extraordinarily rich and haunting experience, for anyone at all, whether they’ve ever heard of post-exoticism or not.

Are you working on a new project at the moment that you would like to talk about?  What other French authors do you read for pleasure and/or recommend?

 I’m working on a new project that I’m finding so difficult I prefer not to think about it, much less talk about it!  In my opinion, the three great French writers of the early twenty-first century are Volodine, Eric Chevillard, and Marie NDiaye.  There are a great many others, of course, but those are the three I would strongly urge people to read more of.  NDiaye is a particularly underrated writer here: she’s got a little more attention on our shores recently, but she wrote a lot of fantastic books before Three Strong Women, and for the most part those have gone untranslated.  I’m hoping to do my small part in remedying that.

Thank you so much Jordan!  And, dear readers, there’s exciting news on the horizon.  This May the second book to be released by Two Lines Press is Marie NDiaye’s collection of 5 short stories All My Friends, translated by none other than Jordan Stump.


Jordan Stump, Professor (Ph.D. Illinois, 1992), is the author of articles on the Marquis de Sade, Georges Perec, Marie Redonnet, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint, among others, and of Naming and Unnaming: On Raymond Queneau (University of Nebraska Press, 1998). He has also published translations of novels by Marie Redonnet, Eric Chevillard, Patrick Modiano, Christian Oster, Antoine Volodine, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Jules Verne, and Honoré de Balzac. His translation of Claude Simon’s The Jardin des Plantes (Northwestern University Press, 2001) was awarded the French-American Foundation’s annual translation prize in 2001, and in the fall of 2006 he was named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His interests include literary theory, the contemporary novel, the ontology of fiction, and literary translation.  –  courtesy of the University of Nebraska’s online directory.

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HHhH by Laurent Binet (translated from the French by Sam Taylor, audio narrated by John Lee)

HHhH is the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman award winning novel which tells the story of Operation Anthropoid:  the secret WWII mission to assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich.

Heydrich was Nazi Germany’s golden child.  Chief among his many accomplishments was the development “the final solution to the Jewish question” – which he helped conceive and present to Nazi leaders at the infamous Wannsee Conference of 1942.  He is arguably the father of the Holocaust.  At the time of his death he was also the Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia – Hitler’s man on the ground in those two occupied countries.  If Laurent Binet is to be belived, and I see no reason he shouldn’t, many thought Heydrich would one day replace Hitler himself.  He was the monster even the monsters feared,  nicknamed “the man with the iron heart”, “The Butcher of Prague”, and “the blond beast”.   Heydrich served directly under Himmler, and the book’s title: HHhH is an acronym for a popular German saying of the time.  Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, or Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.

His would be assassins, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš are more obscure. A Czech and a Slovak, soldiers sent from England by the Czech government in exile, they were tasked to kill Heydrich and to establish among the Allied Forces that the Czech Resistance has teeth.  In comparison to Heydrich very little seems to be known about these two men, or of the dozens of others in the Prague Underground who assisted them in their mission.  The recounting of their mission is a harrowing, heroic, and frequently touching wartime adventure.  It has all the elements you’d expect – acts of courage and cowardice, daring escapes, heroic last stands, camaraderie and betrayal.

Laurent Binet has woven a metafiction into his novel, placing himself squarely between the reader and events.  His narrator relays a scene and then stops, correcting himself and revising, speaking directly to the reader of the difficulties he’s encountering.  Then he jumps forward in time to explain what will eventually happen to some key characters.  He takes all kinds of licenses – imposing psychological traits, describing Heydrich’s voice as distinctively and comically high-pitched (something I found too good to be true – which it apparently is), imagining scenes that could never have been witnessed and so perhaps never happened.  Or explaining that if they did happen, they were completely different from what he describes. By using what is basically a literary affectation, Binet creates complete transparency.  HHhH becomes as much a commentary on the act of writing non-fiction as it is a description of Operation Anthropoid (Binet is the son of a historian).

Binet tells his readers what is true, what might be true and what is patently false.  Adeptly he draws back the curtain on the  scenes he’s made-up for narrative expediency, never breaking stride or missing a beat.  The prose is surprisingly unified and fluid.  The actual story is surprisingly heart-wrenching.  I write “surprisingly” because with all Binet’s narrative breaks and insertions, the interruptions and explanations, the complete opposite should be the true.    Until the final scene, and in contrast to most works of historical fiction, we are kept outside of events.  Yet, Binet’s writing is so masterful that his peculiar choice of narrative seems the only way to properly tell the story of Operation Anthropoid.  Any other way suddenly appears melodramatic and contrived in contrast (something Binet reinforces by mentioning books and films which predate HHhH).

And, without giving too much away, that last scene I mentioned – when we are finally allowed within the frame of the story –  is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of prose written this year.  Even listening to it on audio doesn’t detract from its power.   It is suffused with light and emotion.  Brilliant (to invoke an adjective I freely admit to overusing) in every sense of the word.  That last scene is a culmination of everything – every chapter, every literary trick and artifice – Binet has employed throughout the pages that precede it.

HHhH is a thrilling WWII tale, a precocious first novel and (I’m calling it!) a future classic of French literature.  Personally, I’ve not one piece of negative criticism.  I expect it to (and will cry foul if it doesn’t) win all the translated novel awards this year.  Sam Taylor has created a subtle and nuanced translation.  That may seem a bold claim from someone who doesn’t speak the source language, but even a non-French speaker can see the challenges this novel poses.  There is precision in the plotting and intent which could have been all too easily lost or muddied.   There is a constant shifting in perspective and, subsequently, in style.  John Lee has done an equally fine job with the audio.  Particularly in voicing the narrator’s asides, which he’s given just the right inflection of wry banter.  I’m pleased to write that Farrar, Straus and Giroux, true to form, accorded HHhH all the attention and talent it deserves.  I even love the cover art.

Publisher:     Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 374169 91 6

Memoirs of a Porcupine by Alain Mabanckou (translated from the original French by Helen Stevenson)

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

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