Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone

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.

Black BazaarThe 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

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*only available digitally

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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