Sunday Salon: Exploring the Congo
Most of this week has been devoted to my journey into world literature, choosing the authors and books I want to read for my Reading along the Equator and Reading along the Prime Meridian challenges. I’ve now identified authors for three of the 21 countries (Colombia, the Congo and England) and shortlisted some authors for another five. It’s proving difficult to track down novels in English for some of the countries though (or at least ones that are available at an affordable price).
I also made a start on reading some of these authors with a novel from the Republic of the Congo (confusingly there is a separate country called Democratic Republic of the Congo), chosen for my Given the region’s history of colonial subjugation, human rights issues and civil war , I expected that Congolese literature would be on the dark side, full of concerns about repression, identity and a the clash of modernity with tradition.
What I hadn’t expected was the quirky humour of Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass — a novel I found by chance in a library book sale. Mabanckou is one of a small number of authors from the region who have gained international attention in recent years. While he’s a controversial figure because of his belief that Africans need to take some degree of responsibility themselves for slavery, in Broken Glass he steers clear of geo-political issues and focuses instead on the lives of a colourful cast of characters
Broken Glass is the nickname of a narrator who is a regular customer at the Credit Gone Away bar, a seedy joint much frequented by men who believe they’ve been much wronged by their familes. Broken Glass is asked by the bar’s owner to begin documenting the history of his establishment and the stories of his customers. They’re all eager to oblige, seeing this as an opportunity to put the record straight and to achieve a degree of fame. So we meet ‘Pampers’ who was falsely accused of sexually molesting his daughter (his name comes from the fact he has to wear nappies because of injuries sustained during repeated sexual attacks in prison) and ‘Printer’ who was once a designer suit-wearing manager but is now a penniless heavy drinker.
Their stores are told in a fast-pace, almost stream of consciousness style,with few full stops, paragraph breaks or capital letters. Far from being pretentious however, this style feels completely natural and real, as if we are on a bar stool with Broken Glass as he downs yet another glass of red wine. Mabanckou has a wonderful flair for mockery – early on in the book we’re introduced to a Prime Minister who is so jealous of a new catchphrase coined by his Minister for Agriculture that he orders his entire staff he find him one that’s even better and then plots his revenge:
the Prime Minister promised in the next reshuffle the Minister for Agriculture would be given the portfolio for Culture, all you had to do was cross out the first four letters of ‘agriculture.
I’m hoping the rest of the book lives up to the promise of the first 50 pages or so….