Broken Glass – Alain Mabanckou

[I decided to read this novella in its two parts. When I wrote about the first part, I hadn’t yet read the second.]

18 September 2017
First Part
How engaging am I finding this? Would I be having a better time if I was French and reading the original version? Probably not, I suspect. I’ve always had a deep suspicion of authors who live in the West, writing about their native countries as though being born there gives them the right to be as bitingly satirical as they like. What fools these Congolese mortals be – which, now I think about it, is exactly the kind of smart-arse literary reference that ‘Broken Glass’ likes. He’s an ex-teacher, like me, so what would you expect from either of us? But with him – and, in his narrative, the stories he’s heard from other people at the drinkers’ bar he haunts – words, quotations, literary references are peppered throughout, often at random. For instance love is mentioned so, for no reason at all, it has to be in the time of cholera. There are dozens of others, but they snap into view and are gone, and my memory doesn’t hold them. Why would it? Shakespeare is in there, the Bible, and so many French authors and politicians I’m sure I miss half of them.

This is the Republic of Congo, part of what used to be the French or Middle Congo, and early on Mabanckou has his narrator present a tin-pot government led by a self-serving fool. Ho-hum – the corruption and everyday ineptitude of everybody are from stock in this kind of post-colonial expatriate view. In Mabanckou’s word-driven world, our introduction to these idiots is through the president’s demand for a memorable catchphrase. His agriculture minister has outdone everyone else in the Cabinet, including the idiot president, with a speech in which he uses a resounding ‘J’accuse’ in almost every sentence. It rarely makes proper sense, but it sounds good, and the president rewards him with a promotion: he can be culture minister, a convenient transition as only four letters will need to be removed. How we laughed…

…and meanwhile, the other ministers are set to work to come up with something. They trawl through French culture, Shakespeare, everywhere they can… but no. None of their preposterous suggestions fits the bill – until, finally, one does. Mabanckou is so pleased with it, he leaves it until the end of the president’s speech, and the end of a chapter. ‘I have understood you!’ he proclaims, and every French reader will get the joke as readily as with the minister’s ‘J’accuse’: it is what De Gaulle said to the white Algerians in a speech promising that the country would always remain a French territory. It’s both a sop to a colonialist mind-set and, at the same time, one of the most notorious lies in French politics. How we laughed, again. But there’s a limit to how much mileage can be squeezed out of making fun of the ignorance of a set of clowns. That’s what Mabanckou does, for page after page, and I just wish it was wittier.

Which is how I feel about most of the chapters I’ve read so far. Broken Glass’s narrative gimmick is to write with no punctuation except commas (pardon me while I stifle a yawn) and no paragraph breaks. There are capital letters for proper nouns, and speech marks – go figure – and you could work out where the other punctuation should be without much difficulty. Is it supposed to look like stream-of-consciousness? A joke about the imperfect skill-set of the ex-teacher? A representation of the torrent of verbal diarrhoea that he and the other bar-flies suffer from?

Those other denizens of Credit Gone West – I don’t know what the bar’s name is in the original French – often buttonhole Broken Glass to tell him a story. They know that the man who runs it, the Stubborn Snail, has asked him to write down a memoir about the bar, because oral history isn’t enough for him. If you tell him that in Africa, when an old person dies, a library burns he says ‘Don’t talk crap, I want it in writing.’ So now, Broken Glass is never without his notebook. And people talk to him – the irony being that their stories are, by definition, unreliable. There’s ‘the Pampers guy,’ a man reduced to wearing nappies after having been turned out of his own home ‘like a dog’ by his no-good wife, a witch pretending to be religious but, really, shagging her latest guru. He ended up in a jail where he was endlessly sexually assaulted – hence the nappies –  but was completely innocent of everything she accused him of, obviously,…

…as was ‘the Printer,’ the returned expatriate who boasts that he has ‘done France.’ He was deported from there, following his frenzied, drunken attack on his no-good French wife. His son from a previous relationship, who he was now looking after, told him she was having an affair, so the Printer surprised her – in bed with the son. There are ugly patterns and echoes emerging here… but a story of his own that Broken Glass recounts takes things in a new direction. Unsurprisingly, it’s at least as bad, about a mountainous woman renowned for her bladder capacity who takes bets about being able to out-piss any man who takes her on. She gets her come-uppance – a stranger to the bar can beat her ten-minute effort, drawing maps of France on the ground as he goes – so, as the bet demands, she lets him have sex with her. But the onlookers are disappointed when he takes her to a cheap room somewhere so they won’t get to see it – just as they saw her huge arse (and everything else) during the piss-fest. Is this what counts for entertainment in the godforsaken country Mabanckou left behind decades ago?

And is there anything we might learn from these tall tales? Like, men always blame women for their troubles. Or men are always thinking about sex – Pampers man’s chief complaint about his wife is that she isn’t interested in it, lies there ‘like a plank’ so that he has no choice but to go with prostitutes. Meanwhile, it seems that women live off their husbands for little or nothing in return. Maybe the next part will be more interesting.

22 September
Last Part
Nope, nothing to see here… and this joins a long list of novels that has received huge acclaim for no reason I can fathom. Perhaps people welcome the way that Mabanckou interrogates the way that even a single person might present different versions of the truth, as when Pampers man returns to berate Broken Glass for not writing his story. He has, and when he reminds the man about his witch-like wife, he berates him even more for insulting her. It ends in a fight, satirising – what, if anything? Different interpretations of what is truth? If so, it’s been done before – as has the unreliability of self-serving narrators of their own stories. The problem with the unreliable narrators in this book is that it’s always telegraphed from the start that we’d be fools to believe anything anybody says. Every one of them is the hero of his own story and, in this section, Broken Glass proves to be like the others. He describes how unfair it was that his love of wine was deemed enough to have him thrown out of teaching, and from the marital home – which, like the other wronged husbands, he used to pay for.

Fine. But there’s nothing at all new going on here. As readers, we have no work to do, because Mabanckou makes everything explicit. If there are modernist or postmodernist elements, like the narrator who makes far more literary references than he can possibly know, it’s too crudely done. We find out that Broken Glass’s poor grasp of sentence structure can be explained by his lack of education – do we really need that to be spelled out? – but he references literally hundreds of books. (I’ve read that Mabanckou wanted to cite every book that has ever been important to him, as if I care.) A true Modernist will incorporate other writers by paying homage to their idiolect, their style and lexis. Not Mabanckou. He has mentioned Love in the Time of Cholera, and in this section there are the titles of at least two other Marquez novels forcibly inserted into Broken Glass’s narrative. So? Mabanckou likes Marquez? It doesn’t make him a magic realist.

I could go on, but I’m not going to. Nothing Mabanckou says about life in general, and life in the Congo in particular, is either interesting or new. The Congo is a backwater still morbidly dependent on a former colonial power. The Congo’s government is a joke. People present their own lives in the best possible way, but if we’re alert – or, in this novel, simply awake – it’s possible to see through their lies. We shouldn’t believe everything we read. Men, or African men for sure, have a terrible attitude towards women. Mabanckou loves literature, despite the crudity (deliberate and, apparently, not) of this novel. And…

…and I feel I’ve already spent more than enough time on this.