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.

 

 

 

Boat to Redemption by Su Tong (Howard Goldblatt, translator)

If you’re unfamiliar with Chinese culture, Boat to Redemption can be both an intriguing and baffling book.  Set in Maoist China, Ku Wenxuan is the son of a martyr of the Revolution.  As such he’s lived a life of privilege – a comfy government job, a beautiful wife and a position of honor in the community.  Until, one day, his status is revoked.  The reason is never stated but the implication is he slept with one married woman too many.  His beautiful wife, a staunch party member who reads government propaganda over the radio, leaves him.  He loses his comfy job and is banished to a barge in the Sunnyside Fleet.  With him goes his son, nicknamed Kongpi*, who is the book’s narrator and protagonist.

* People may not know that kongpi is a Milltown slang term that dates back hundreds of years.  It sounds vulgar and easy to understand, but in fact it has a profound meaning that incorporates both kong, or ’empty’, and pi, or ‘ass’.  Placed together, the term is emptier than empty and stinkier than ass.

Boat to Redemption reads like a confession as Kongpi describes life as his father’s son.  The narrative voice is stripped clean of all artifice – brutally, awkwardly, uncomfortably honest.  He hides absolutely nothing.  Obsession, social awkwardness, embarrassing family dramas, constant erections…whole sections of this book could be struck out with a black magic marker and the letters “T.M.I.”  The boy is a screw-up.  Su Tong, in choosing Kongpi as his narrator, guarantees readers a clear understanding of the boy’s inner life.  Simultaneously, Kongpi is completely cognizant of how others see him.  In both cases it’s not an attractive picture.

There are two key events on which the plot of Boat to Redemption hangs. The first is the father’s fall from honor.  The second is the discovery of a foundling girl named Huixian by the Sunnyside Fleet.  Huixian, who eventually reaches the level of D-list celebrity in their small town, is the star of Kongpi’s erotic and chivalric fantasies.  And that’s about it for plot.  There’s not a lot of joy in Boat to Redemption, and I didn’t find much redemption either.  It’s a story about a small group of people who are frequently their own worst enemies.  Despite the excellent writing, the majority of the novel plods along with not much action or forward momentum until the last one hundred pages. Then we’re invited to take a front row seat and watch Kongpi’s life unravel.

Boat to Redemption is both a tragicomedy and an absurdist cautionary tale.  Kongpi is a passive victim of his heritage, his circumstances, his society.  His father teaches him that his sexual urges, his erections, are something to be ashamed of and controlled.  Ku is on constant alert against his son’s libido.  He means well, hoping only to keep Kongpi from repeating his mistakes.  Still it is a twisted relationship in which Kongpi remains a dutiful son – caring for and obeying his father without any significant rebellions until the end of the book, by which point he’s well into his 20’s.  It’s easy to imagine the man he’d be in today’s world: unemployed, no friends, living in his parent’s basement and spending all his time on the internet.

Is it significant that the social positions of all the novel’s main characters are impacted positively and negatively by government whim?  The Wenxuan family’s rise in status occured when the orphaned infant Ku was identified as the son of the martyr Deng Shaoxing (whose background story reads like it was manufactured by the political propaganda machine) because of a birthmark.  When that status is revoked father and son are “hung out” in the Sunnyside Fleet.  Kongpi’s mother loses her radio job and ends her career “hung out” in a government acting troupe touring mining towns.  The girl, Huixian, ascends to celebrity when she is chosen to portray a revolutionary hero on a float, and then plummets after she offends a government official.  She is “hung out” in a local barbershop where she quickly becomes a big fish in a small pond.  Even Milltown, the Sunnyside Fleet’s home port, has a boom period with the building of some vague government project and a bust when the project becomes obsolete.  Fortunes are constantly being made and unmade at the inscrutable whim of the Maoist government.  Yet, despite this, Su Tong doesn’t seem to have a political agenda.  An argument can be made that the characters are at much at fault as the system in which they live.  In the end, there are no heroes in Boat to Redemption. Neither are there villains.

Overall, this is a sad novel.  It includes plenty of episodes which I assume were meant to be comic and to lighten the mood in a slapstick, Keystone Cops kind of way.  In most cases I didn’t get the humor or, at best, found it juvenile.  But tragedy apparently needs no cultural filter.  The pathos of Konpi’s life hits home.  And as frustrating, pathetic and ridiculous as I found him, his father Ku & the girl Huixian, I never doubted their sincerity.  Their motivations, however misguided, read as authentic.   Their behaviors never felt manufactured for the purpose of plot.  Su Tong’s characters live and breathe.

Boat to Redemption won the 2009 Man Asian Literary Reward.  It’s author, Su Tong, was nominated for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize.

Publisher:  Overlook Press, New York (2011)
ISBN: 978 1 59020 672 0