The pursuit of the banal with Alain Mabanckou
Often, Africans are portrayed as an anonymous mass without individuality - for example, in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, which is set along the Congo River, in the region Alain Mabanckou is discussing. Of course, Michel Houllebecq, who delights in the contradictions and neuroses of the Fifth Republic today, might portray the black immigrant in a modern French conurbation as a stray Senegalese lurking, probably threateningly, at the end of the street. Alain Mabanckou, in ‘Les Lumieres de Pointe- Noire’, shows black people in a Central African town- Pointe Noire- to be genuine personalities. Western literature all too frequently relegates black heroes and heroines, harassed by the difficulties of life, to the unbearable position of being annoying stereotypes. For Mabanckou, black men and women and children are his family, his community. Sadly, that Alain Mabanckou seems to present the citizens of his town as real characters would appear the only valuable aspect of his work. He prefers his tone to be flippant, and one feels he is, at heart, a cynical author, packaging Africa for the sake of a white middle class audience in the West. Instead of angrily confronting the corruption and tribalism inherent in his Africa, he, to a degree, sidesteps these and other vicious problems of the continent with his maudlin jokey manner.
His ‘Les Lumieres de Pointe- Noire’ concerns the death of his mother, Pauline Kengue, in 1995, and his return to his home town after an absence of twenty three years. He is not so much trying to subvert anything as to play the role of the possibly amused observer. All that comes across about his home town, Pointe- Noire, is ‘ennui’; by the end of the book, which I found down- beat, superficial and unsuccessful, the fear is one has been invited by the writer into the most boring place on Earth inhabited by the most boring people. The only (loosely) interesting sites are the Cinema Rex and the French Institute. The impression is that Pointe- Noire is a town limited in aspiration and soul.
The novel is part political and social comment, part family album. The author never attempts to exceed the banal. It is as if his ambition is to trivialize everything, for example, the issue of corruption. He discusses this with an approach that is perhaps facetious when he refers to his Uncle Albert having the street name changed to Rue de Louboulou by paying bribes to the city council. Louboulou was the name of the village from which the families of this street and quarter in Pointe- Noire came. Uncle Albert’s petty feat of corruption is regarded as almost a piece of fun in Mabanckou’s stale prose- though corruption remains a shadow, a curse, across Africa and the Third World. Corruption is a killer,not a piece of amusement.
Tribalism too comes in for the soft, woolly, jokey treatment that Mabanckou prefers. In a tumbledown restaurant, Chez Gaspand, he dines by chance with a somewhat paranoid individual intent on discussing the oil war in Congo between north and south. The interlocutor emerges as rather comic, a know-all, and, eventually, a scrounger. Mabanckou’s ambience of ‘badinage’ is never lessened, so that the narrator, demonstrating his ‘sang froid’, is made to seem level- headed and superior in comparison with his ranting dinner companion. Humour can appear at times necessary to defuse a dilemma or a crisis, but Mabanckou’s humour is more like a mask- he is once more trivializing something serious, the spectre of tribalism in this case, as though it is a joke only for the deluded. Tribalism is a reality, and that reality is blood, rather than a mere comedy sketch in a dodgy Central African restaurant.
I could find ‘The Lights of Pointe- Noire’ only in translation in the Mediatheque, and, of course, without the original French, one does not totally reach the soul of the author. A translation may often be a barrier instead of a bridge. I also looked at ‘Black Bazar’, by Alain Mabanckou, in French. The French language seemed to suit his down- market sardonic sentences. His desire, reiterated ad nauseam, to turn any sort of essentially heavy subject into a light joke remained, while ‘Black Bazar’ proceeded to make fun of the African diaspora in France for what Mabanckou viewed as his community’s almost pathetic arrogance.
His quasi - obsession with trivializing the essence of everything emerges, for example, in the matter of racism. ‘Black bazar’ describes a neighbour- Monsieur Hippocrate- who bombards him with bigoted comments, to the effect that he, as a Congolese, should quit France. It is only at the end of the chapter that we discover Monsieur Hippocrate… is from Martinique, is black himself, is a rather unpleasant ‘Uncle Tom’. This particular ‘bigot’ is black too, and we are crudely invited to smile at Mabanckou’s manipulation of the race question.
This incident, with the attempt to render even racism as just another joke, is typical of Mabanckou’s anecdotal approach; his writing involves a string of anecdotes; he is interested not in profundity, but in dubious punchlines and uncertain laughs. He can be no better than a stand- up comedian, teasing us with his far from overwhelming wit.
In ‘Les Lumieres de Pointe- Noire’, he wields yet another anecdote to deal with one more grim and difficult subject- colonialism. His (polygamous) father, Papa Roger, worked as a receptionist in the Victory Palace Hotel, owned and run by a French woman, Mme Ginette. .. Then Mabanckou’s rather obvious symbol of colonialism proceeds to arrive- the woman’s father, old and crusty, who turns out to be even more of a dictator than his daughter. The father leads a conspiracy among the African employees to rid the hotel of the petty busy body of a white interloper. Invisible small painful barbs from a plant, the ‘bundia’, are surreptitiously scattered by Papa Roger on the aged father’s special armchair. These cause the unfortunate martinet extreme discomfort; he is taken away in an ambulance, never to impose his presence in the hotel lobby again. This apparently light- hearted, sideways, ‘Fawlty Towers’- like critique of colonialism is surely another instance of Mabanckou trivializing an issue. Colonialism was a beast; it slaughtered millions; illustrating it within the boundaries of situation comedy knockabout is maybe detracting from the compassionate insight required.
The Reading Group, on May 12, occurred in the Salons upstairs as Summer seemed at last to be insinuating itself into the streets of London. There was the simultaneous promise and threat of heat in the air, temperatures perhaps matching even those of Pointe- Noire. The moderator, Dominic Glynn, presented as usual a slide show followed by a filmed interview with the author. A member of the audience pointed out the book’s emphasis on the French Institute in Pointe- Noire. I continued to observe that Pointe- Noire came across to me as a catastrophically boring place, where only the Cinema Rex and the French Institute seemed interesting (!) Later, after the main talk had ended, another audience member, a lady who had been in Morocco, confided to me how, in a typical town there, the cinema and the library were foci for the local population.
I have looked through, on the brown varnished shelves of the Mediatheque, various books by Mabanckou- such as ‘Demain J’Aurai Vingt et Un Ans’. Pointe- Noire- the place and its people- is the theme to which he returns again and again. The town does not easily bear the burden of so much investigation, as though Alain Mabanckou is raiding to excess his own memories, his own family, his own acquaintances. What comes across in his description of existence in an average African urban situation is, no doubt without the author’s conscious intention, a sense of oppressive ordinariness, against which his not very reassuring flippancy is little defence.
Mabanckou’s discordantly quirky books, then, address the crippling problems of Africa and the African Diaspora through a jerky humour that is not always well- placed. He deals with polygamy- that of his father- yet again as something of a joke, and avoids a real analysis of the dilemmas and dangers that polygamy must involve.
The essential trivialization of subject after subject might seem acceptable in a mere children’s book, but, from an adult’s point of view, one might almost conclude that Mabanckou has not enough respect for his readers. We are not to be given the necessary rage and anger, however grim such rage and anger may be, with respect to the poverty and exploitation Africa undergoes, but something smiling, saccharine- and possibly false. Alain Mabanckou reminds one of the Cheshire cat in the fable of Alice, which never stops grinning, and slowly fades away- being ultimately without substance. In my view, Mabanckou is schoolboy stuff; it is cowardly that his prose does not impact head on the incessant tragedy of Africa.
I, as just a visiting psychiatric patient, was in a medical research library, looking at a copy of ‘International Psychiatry’ , from 2010, which contained an article on ‘Mental Health in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): a post- crisis country’. The DRC borders Mabanckou’s own Republic of Congo. The authors of the article described the destruction of the economy, the terrifying amount of hunger and disease, the killing by ghoulishly unprincipled militia of millions upon millions. These mournful realities of Central Africa are avoided by Mabanckou through resorting to the ploy of converting life into banal anecdotes and unconvincing hilarity.
Many at the Reading Group spoke up for Mabanckou as someone embodying the tradition of the African as a story- teller. An audience member who had worked as a teacher in Africa (he had married there) had read the book in both English and French, seemed to think it arresting, and said he had enjoyed it; it mirrored his own experience of Africa. He also commented that it was of interest to compare English and French phrases, in original and translation.
The Reading Group - that site of chatter and confrontation- ended, and we descended upon some Corsican cheeses and savouries laid out on large plates across one of the respectable- looking, solid- looking tables of the Salons. A girl of African heritage came up to me, and claimed my comments on Mabanckou were unfair, and she cited a book of his I had not read- ‘African Psycho’. With literature, with the arts in general, there is no objective measure by which we can gauge the quality (or shortage of quality) of an alleged ‘creator’- we harbour our own deficiencies and prejudices inevitably affecting what we feel about an author. Literary criticism should not be scientific, after all. It needs to be florid and ambivalent, controversial and pig- headed. Literary criticism is not seeking a solution for every reader, but a reaction- perhaps, alas, acidic- from the customarily tortured and bleak heart of one particular individual. Mabanckou is, I confess, superficial and too undemanding, in my view; but someone else is of course entitled to attack me as not understanding and appreciating him.
The moderator, Dominic Glynn, declared he would not be chairing the next Reading Group. I crept down the stairs, ambled drably past reception and through the stark glass doors, and looked about me, at the invincible greyness of London, the sense of colourless concrete even in Spring. There was no all- embracing African Sun to dispel the ambience of urban dullness as I traipsed, tired and pensive, into the mechanized cavern that is South Kensington Station.