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Review: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou

mabanckouTake a seedy bar in a dilapidated part suburb of an African city; mix in a few odd ball characters and the stage is set for Alain Mabanckou’s effervescent narrative Broken Glass.

The eponymous narrator is a disgraced school teacher. He spends his days soaking up large quantities of red wine at the Credit Gone West bar.  Requested by the bar’s proprietor to write the story of the bar and its clients, Broken West finds himself beset by a string of misfortunates with hard luck stories who all want to set the record straight about their downfall. Each tries hard to convince Broken Glass that they are the innocent victims but Broken Glass exposes the delusions at the heart of their tales of woe. Some of the tales and episodes border on the absurd and the fantastical – in one scene two customers engage in a contest to prove who can urinate for the longest time.

Though most of the early part of the book is taken up with the stories related by his fellow patrons, Broken Glass gradually begins to reveal the story of his own misadventure and his growing revulsion towards these downbeats.  The tone veers between downright funny and bizarre and then, with a deft touch, to mocking satire on the nature of African politicians, the self-delusion of  upstart Congolese men or the mediocrity of authors.

It’s a clever book full of teasing (unattributed) quotations from other texts, from Hamlet to Catcher in the Rye and from One Hundred Years of Solitude to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, slipped into the narrative as if they are the narrator’s own words. It doesn’t take long to discover that Broken Glass takes his task as a writer and curator of the bar’s history very seriously.

even when I’m drunk I hate useless repetition or padding, as used by certain writers known to be first-class drivellers, who serve up the same old stuff in every new book and try to make out they’ve created a new word, my eye ….

This is a short book with a distinctive voice and style in which words, images and literary allusions freewheel with barely a pause or a full stop. It’s stream of consciousness but without any pretensions to grandiose statements about the universe or humanity.   I read this book as part of my Reading Along the Equator Challenge. It tantalised me with its references to ordinary life in the Congo – a dish called  ‘bicycle chicken’ seems a big favourite but how this dish is served or cooked or how it tastes remains a mystery. Alain Mabanckou is considered one of Africa’s leading living novelists with an impressive list of commendations and awards. I came across him by chance in a library book sale but  will now definitely want to read more of his work.

About the Author

Alain Mabanckou was born in 1966 in the Republic of the Congo (what he calls Congo Brazzeville to distinguish it from the neighbouring Congo Kinsasha  otherwise known as Democratic Republic of the Congo). He trained as a lawyer and worked in a legal practice in France for almost 10 years, writing poetry and prose at night. Success came with his first novel,Bleu-Blanc-Rouge (Blue-White-Red),  published in 1998  with which he won the Sub-Saharan Africa Literary Prize awarded by the Association of French Language now a Professor in the French Department of the University of California in Los Angeles.

Discover more about him through an interview with FranceToday or The Economist.

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