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.