Singularly Adaptable: On Alain Mabanckou
In the first pages of Alain Mabanckou’s Black Bazaar, a character named Roger the French-Ivorian cautions the Congolese narrator against writing a diary. “Writing is not our thing,” he says. “With us it is the oral traditions of our ancestors.… Plus we have got a funny accent, you can hear it even when we write.”
These are unfair generalizations, but it’s true that “accent,” understood in the broadest possible terms, is a problem that every Francophone or Anglophone or Lusophone writer in postcolonial Africa must confront. Mabanckou himself learned French at the age of 6. Before that, as he said in a 2010 interview published in BOMB magazine, he spoke “five or six African languages.” Later, however, he was “shocked to see…that there was no literature in these languages. Nothing is written in Bembé or in Lingala—they’re oral languages.” So his decision to write in the colonial language was not a decision at all. It was, and remains, a frustrating necessity, and it means that he “cannot express something directly to [his] people.”
With Broken Glass, published in French in 2005 and translated by Helen Stevenson into English in 2009, Mabanckou discovered a “way to deal with the French.” “If you feel the rhythm of the prose,” he told BOMB, “it’s like the Congolese way of speaking.” The narrator, also called Broken Glass, lets it all pour out, one thing after another, as he sits drinking in a bar named Credit Gone West. The rhythm of the prose is the rhythm of the breath; there isn’t a full stop in the whole book. But Broken Glass takes place in Congo-Brazzaville. If it’s written in the colonial language, its concerns are primarily Congolese. Black Bazaar, originally published in 2009 and available this year in English translation, is a novel of the diaspora. It’s a slim, agreeable book, and though it takes place in Paris, its engagement with the specter of colonialism is much more direct. The problem here is not how to deal with French, but how to deal with France. Black Bazaar is the title that the narrator—who is called Buttologist because he believes “you can understand human psychology from the way people shift their rear-ends”—gives to his journal. He begins writing when his girlfriend, Original Colour, runs away to Congo-Brazzaville with their daughter and a tom-tom player, so the book starts as a private emotional accounting, a kind of exercise. But nothing remains private for long in Buttologist’s world, and soon everyone knows that he’s writing a book and everyone wants to talk to him about it.
When Roger the French-Ivorian finds that he’s unable to discourage Buttologist from writing in the first place, he undertakes to give him more substantive advice: “But in these stories of yours,” he says, “have you at least got a sea and an old man who goes fishing with a young boy?” Buttologist does not. He says he’s been afraid of the ocean since Jaws. Roger persists: “Have you at least got an old man who reads love stories in the middle of the bush?” Buttologist does not. There’s only one road in Congo-Brazzaville, impassable in the rainy season, so there’s no way to get the old man his books. “Have you at least got a drunkard who goes to the land of the dead to find his palm wine supplier…? Have you at least got a great love that takes place in the time of cholera between a poor telegrapher and a young schoolgirl who will end up marrying a doctor later on?” Buttologist explains that he’s never been to the land of the dead. He pretends that he doesn’t know what a telegrapher is. At last he becomes frustrated: “I write the way I lead my life, one moment it’s one thing and the next I’ve moved on to a whole different kettle of fish, and that’s called living too in case you didn’t know.” So the prologue lays out the terms: here are the real books—Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the writers whom Roger thinks Buttologist should attempt to imitate. But here is Buttologist’s declared ambition to write only the book that he can write, as only he can write it.
Here, too, is a method: Roger asks the question and Buttologist answers. Their argument has the rhythm of a routine or a recitation, curiously balanced and formal. The whole novel will have this form, with characters speaking at tremendous, pedantic length, and Buttologist patiently hearing them out; with the same phrases and epithets returning at regular intervals; with the same plot points surfacing and resurfacing. These devices belong to oral storytelling, and in this respect Black Bazaar does resemble The Palm-Wine Drinkard, which is both a transcription of ancient Yoruba legend and an intensely self-conscious, voicedriven novel. But if Tutuola makes West African village life intelligible to European readers by giving its legends the shape of a novel, Mabanckou gives Paris the character of an African village by emphasizing the oral culture of its immigrant community. He’s dealing with monologists and barroom braggarts, and the novel’s structure is a way of reconciling his subject with his medium.
Black Bazaar is a noisy book, full of the frustrations and irritations of close communal life, and Buttologist is very much at home in this environment. But he is a mild character: he avoids confrontation, lets others have their say, and chooses not to make “the revenge machete trip” to Congo-Brazzaville in order to settle things with Original Colour and the tom-tom player. Instead, he sends her money so she can care for their daughter. His primary interest is clothes. He belongs to the Society for Ambient People and Persons of Elegance (or SAPPE), which is to say he sets great store by his fancy suits, but at the same time he’s known as Buttologist and takes himself no more seriously than the name implies.
The people with whom he spends his time, however—other Congolese immigrants, Chadians and a number of troublesome Ivorians—are not mild characters, and they take themselves very seriously indeed. In a general way, their shared obsession is the colonial past. Roger the French-Ivorian is an apologist. He says, “You’ve got to stop blaming those settlers for everything! The Whites cleared off and they left you everything including colonial homes, electricity, a railway, drinking water, a river, an Atlantic Ocean, a seaport, Nivaquine, antiseptic and a town centre!” Yves the just-Ivorian, on the other hand, tells Buttologist “that he came to France to make French women pay back the colonial debt.” “They stripped us of our primary resources, so we’ve got to steal their treasures, and by that I mean their women!” He’s outraged that Buttologist has had a child with a black woman. The Arab on the corner, who runs a bodega and comes from North Africa, calls Buttologist his “African brother” and begins every diatribe by paraphrasing Aimé Césaire : “For too long the West has force-fed us with lies and bloated us with pestilence." He dreams of an African Union under Muammar el-Qaddafi. And Buttologist’s neighbor, the racist Mr. Hippocratic, is a black Martiniquan who thinks Buttologist and his friends have turned their building into “a tropical capital,” that they “slit the throats of cockerels at five in the morning to collect their blood” and “beat the tom-toms all night long to send coded messages to their bush spirits and put a jinx on France.” He claims to be upset about the burden they impose on the French taxpayer.
* * *
Buttologist cannot escape these impassioned harangues; they are the element he lives in. But when he’s telling his own story, he doesn’t offer any rebuttals or lay out his political convictions. Instead, he talks about his childhood in Congo-Brazzaville—playing soccer with a ball made of rags, applying to a witch doctor for help with girls. He talks about his various sexual encounters, his suits, life in the banlieue with other Congolese immigrants, life with Original Colour. What distinguishes his point of view from those of his friends and associates is an acceptance of what exists now, in this place and time. The other African and Caribbean immigrants, whatever their political ideas, are united in their fixation on the past. This isn’t a terrible thing in principle, but their understanding of history is uniformly poor and their conclusions don’t get them anywhere.
Mr. Hippocratic and Roger the French- Ivorian speak only of what was missing before the Europeans arrived—“It was empty, chaos, anarchy, nothing in Timbuktu, no Malian empire, no soul, no culture, no Gods” —and Yves the just-Ivorian talks only about what the Europeans took away, but all three talk about precolonial Africa as if it were prehistoric Africa, timeless and unchanging. As far as they’re concerned, the African continent entered history only at the time of the European colonization. The Arab on the corner seems to espouse the opposite view—he says that Europeans are immigrants themselves, that the ancient Egyptians were black, that Europe has tried to rewrite history in order to obscure the great achievements of black people in antiquity—but his understanding of history is just as selective. Most significant, he denies that the Arabs had any role in the slave trade.
In this context, Buttologist appears singularly adaptable. He talks about his “ethnic group,” for instance, and he knows that ethnic and tribal boundaries don’t fit the map of Africa that Europeans drew up—there are two Congos, after all—but he loses his temper with a Breton who tells him that “the two Congos were part of the same territory.” He says, “I don’t want to hear about any of that! I wasn’t there when the French and the Belgians were calling each other every name under the sun… And you weren’t there either, Mr. Breton! I have my country of origin, and the Congolese opposite have theirs.” Colonial history be damned; the world is what it is.
Is Buttologist somehow less African because he’s willing to accept these old colonial borders? Is he less African because he loves Paris? Near the end of the book, he is disparaged as “a poor Black who [doesn’t] like cassava” and who straightens his hair “to look like Whites.” So a taste for cassava, one of the staples of West and Central African cuisine, is here equated with an appreciation of one’s African heritage. Very good, but cassava isn’t an African crop: it came from the tropical Americas—probably on a slave ship—and occupies the same complex, equivocal role in African cultural history that tomatoes and potatoes do in Europe. Mabanckou certainly knows this, but Buttologist may not, and in any case he doesn’t care. He has to get on with the business of living his life.
There are lessons here for the American reader. Not only does Black Bazaar speak persuasively to our own concerns about immigration, but it suggests a refreshing way to talk about the trauma of our history. It’s not hard to imagine how Buttologist might feel about a phrase like “African-American,” for instance. Like the Breton’s discussion of the two Congos, the sense of historical consciousness that this phrase is meant to reflect is incomplete and irrelevant. In practice, it denies black Americans full, unhyphenated status in the language of politics and obscures the fact that “African- American” populations have been established in the Americas for as long or longer than any European population.
But there’s another lesson too, a more personal lesson. If Buttologist has an advantage over all these people who talk his ear off, it’s because he’s a writer, or because he’s becoming a writer. Literature may not offer him solutions to his problems—at least not solutions that are immediately recognizable as solutions—but it’s the act of writing that enables him to transcend the habits of mind in which his countrymen remain trapped. Black Bazaar is about learning that wonderful, surprising lesson: Literature matters; literature can change your life. Buttologist is the only character in the novel who achieves anything like a sense of peace, and he does so by way of the books he reads and the book he’s trying to write.
In our November 7, 2011, issue, frequent contributor Aaron Thier reviewed the story collection We Others by Steven Millhauser, “the master of the inevitable ending in American fiction.”