Alain Mabankcou spent his childhood in Pointe-Noire, a port city in Congo-Brazzaville. But Paris is where he came of age as a writer, first as poet and later as a novelist. As a result of inhabiting these multiple locations of culture and working within different literary archives and traditions, Mabanckou’s work has an unruly quality about it. It cannot so easily be boxed into a genre or grafted on to a social theme. This is, in part, because what is interesting about his work is primarily what is experimental about it. But it is also true that what is experimental about his writing is what is most African about it.
Some writers are content with reproducing existing forms while others are constantly in search of new forms. Mabanckou falls into the latter group. For over two decades, he has sought to challenge the rules for translating life into fiction. Like Amos Tutuola, he achieved literary recognition for a work that broke all kinds of rules. He caught his big break in 2005 with the publication of Le Verre Casse (Broken Glass), a strange documentary narrative about a fictitious urban slum. The novel is dark and digressive. The humor is unholy. The characters have dramatic names like Broken Glass and Stubborn Snail and the story is set in a bar called Credit Gone West located in a neighborhood called He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot. There are no punctuations in the entire novel except for commas. The book is as weird as they come. But it received rave reviews and was shortlisted for the Prix Renaudot, a prize that he went on to win the following year for an even more experimental work of fiction titled Memoirs of a Porcupine (2006). Mabanckou has founded a literary career on the refusal to reproduce cliches about how to write African fiction. This is worth celebrating, but it is also important to identify the ways in which this openness to the unconventional makes him relevant in the African literary canon.
Unlike what some critics have argued, experimentation with form is not the exception in African fiction. For African writers, forcing the novel to do strange things was a necessity. African writers could never really afford to produce ordinary work. They had to be aggressively innovative. There are historical reasons for this. There is a moment in Mabanckou’s Black Bazaar (2009) when a character declares: “Everything has already been written.” This statement rings true for the writer of African fiction. African fiction came of age at a time when the novel, as the iconic narrative form of modernity, had being invented and perfected. Everything had indeed been written, or so it seemed. All kinds of innovations had taken place. Dickens had happened. Joyce, Kafka, Woolf had happened. No one expected African writers to invent anything new. They were either doomed to slavishly imitate a borrowed form or were assigned the task of spicing up the novel with some local color. Thankfully, the history of the African novel has essentially been a refusal of such a sad fate.
In a sense, every African writer is like Buttologist, the main character in Black Bazaar—faced with the challenge of producing something new in a world saturated with existing forms. But Mabanckou’s response to this challenge—like Chinua Achebe’s response or Dambudzo Marechera’s response or Amos Tutuola’s response— has been to constantly seek out ways to tell stories differently.
In his work, Mabanckou breaks down existing orders of forms so that something new and African can emerge. One of his signature stylistic features is the exclusion of punctuations, except for the comma. But disregard for laws is not necessarily chaos. For Mabanckou who came to storytelling by way of poetry, disregard for the laws of punctuation opens up the possibility of doing interesting things with sound and rhythm. His fiction has a sonic texture, making his narratives quite suitable to be read aloud. In a 2010 interview with Binyavanga Wainaina, Mabanckou reveals something interesting about this play with punctuation. He explains that it is a formal quirk he devised to deal an African blow to the French language. Broken Glass, he says, “is written in French, but if you feel the rhythm of the prose, it’s like the Congolese way of speaking. That’s why I use only one kind of punctuation throughout the book: the comma. I’m proud that I now finally found a way to deal with the French.” His play with form and language becomes a lever for forcing the French language to bear the rhythmic pressure of Congolese speech patterns.
African writers are good at thinking outside the box when it comes to the aesthetics of storytelling. But they have historically not always treated the reader well. Between Achebe’s desire to teach the reader, Soyinka’s insistence on confounding the reader with esoteric language, and Ngugi’s attempt to conscript the reader into a revolutionary project, little or no attention has been paid to the reader’s need for the pleasures of the text. That is why it is important to make the point that Mabanckou’s fiction and autobiographical writings are fun to read. They are fun not in the sense of cheap dramatic thrills but in the sense of being captivating. You can tell that Mabanckou counts on a reader who wants to fall in love with language and asks to be seduced by the text and the story. He has mastered the art of the opening line. In Memoirs of the Porcupine, Kibandi’s double begins with the declaration: “I am just an animal.” In African Psycho (2003), Gregoire, addressing the reader in a cool, clinical tone, declares: “I have decided to kill Germaine on December 29.” The Lights of Pointe-Noire (2013) begins with a confession: “For a long time I let people think my mother was still alive.” These lines are designed to work on the reader’s curiosity. They appear to be simple and direct, but they also signal the torrent of tension and suspense that awaits the reader.
Mabanckou has this uncanny gift for telling stories in a way that shows us how storytelling works. A novel like African Psycho is thrilling but not for the obvious reasons. From the opening line, the reader expects the novel will be a traditional crime story in the vein of Bret Ellis’s American Psycho. But Mabanckou offers something much better. The thread of suspense in the novel hangs upon the perverse imagination of an aspiring serial killer who is more adept at conjuring elaborate scenes of violence than committing actual murders. Instead of a story about violence, we get an absurdist narrative about the staging of violence. Violence becomes a problem of aesthetics and a question of style. To read Mabanckou’s work is to read from a place of power. He gives the reader a sense of being in the know, of peeking at the characters from the behind the curtains. From that privileged and intimate angle, his characters appear awkward and their lives undramatic. But they also become so much more lovable.
Mabanckou is one those artists who recycle artistic elements—like Tutuola and his forest, Soyinka and Ogun, Sebald and photographs, or Yeats and gyres. It doesn’t take much to realize that the bar is a space that stands out for Mabanckou. But each time a bar appears in his work it does something different.
In Broken Class, the bar called Credit Gone West is vibrant, discordant, but endlessly productive as a meeting place of all kinds of objects, bodies, and narratives. In Black Bazaar, the bar is setup in opposition to the dysfunction and aggression of domestic spaces. In Lights of Pointe-Noire, the gap between the bar and the household closes to create an intimate space where a mother’s love can abide. One of the most beautiful moments in the book takes place in the bar, right before Alain leaves for Paris. He is sitting at the bar with his aging mother:
Outside the day was starting to fade. Inside the café, I could barely make out my mother’s features, only her eyes that glistened, lighting up the room. I could hear the frantic beating of her heart. The silence was like a wall between us, which neither one wished to break through. We said nothing, which said almost everything. She was transmitting something to me, but I didn’t know what. I was careful not to speak. The slightest word would have ruined the moment.
I read this passage at a literary workshop in Oslo, and I remember the room falling silent as everyone held their breath to take in the mesmerizing beauty of this image of a woman’s face effaced in darkness except for her glistening eyes and the machine-like beating of her heart. What is powerful about the image is what has been excluded—what you do not see and what is not said. The mother’s face disappears so that we can see the light flooding out of her eyes. Her body disappears so that we can see hear her heart beating against the silence of their refusal to utter a word. After reading this passage to this group who came to hear me talk about how to read African fiction for aesthetic innovation, something strange happened. The silence in the text seemed to have escaped the text and encroached upon our little group. I remember all of us sitting together; dumb struck at the beauty of the writing and, like Alain, fearing that the “slightest word would ruin the moment.” The capacity to make words and images take on a life of their own and confront the reader is one of the unique elements of Mabanckou’s artistry.
Mabanckou has become the Anglophone reader’s window into the world of Francophone African writers. His work bridges these two literary trajectories that have for decades developed separately. He has drawn liberally from both traditions to forge his own brand of literary work. His body of fiction is essentially what would happen if Amos Tutuola and Mongo Beti ended up in a bar trading stories while Achebe sat in the corner trying—lovingly—to temper their excesses.
Alain Mabackou will present the keynote lecture at the Africa Writes book festival in London on Sunday, July 2. To hear him talk about his journey as a writer and the politics of language and style, click here to book tickets.