March 2007

John Zuarino


The African Psycho Comes to America

According to certain traditional African beliefs, everyone has an animal alter-ego. Winner of the Prix Renaudot, France’s equal to the National Book Award, Alain Mabanckou’s newest novel Mémoires de porc-épic (Memoirs of a Porcupine) explores the notion that every man and his alter-ego share interwoven destinies, no matter how well they get along. A porcupine, the animal counterpart to a treacherous village artisan in the Congo, rebels against his alter-ego by informing the entire village of his criminal deeds. After toppling acclaimed French-language novelist Jonathan Littel’s Les bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) with his sixth novel, Mabanckou is ready to take on the world with the first English translation of one of his works, African Psycho (Serpent à Plumes).

African Psycho is set to a monologue by the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Gregoire Nakobomayo. Utterly psychotic, Gregoire opens the novel by stating, “I have decided to kill Germaine on December 29.” Mabanckou’s novel, set in the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) in the late nineties, grants its readers insight into the minds of one of the world’s most inept murderers as well as the nation’s social and political norms through Mabanckou’s trademark humor and first-hand experiences.

“Like most anglophone readers,” Mabanckou says via e-mail, “I liked Ellis’s novel American Psycho.” African Psycho, as is plainly noticeable, plays off the title of Brett Easton Ellis’s all-American bad boy novel. But that’s about it. “My book, African Psycho, is deeply rooted in Africa, and I needed to focus on an awkward character who is unable to commit a real murder -- Gregoire Nakobomayo. American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman is a product of America; he is rich -- the image of the successful Manhattan executive. Gregoire is the opposite. He is an orphan. He is poor. He lives on the street. He was adopted by a rich family, but it is not his world. He wants to resemble Angoualima, a mythical serial killer from the other Congo [the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaïre]. Patrick Bateman is the perfect serial killer. Gregoire is just eternally awkward.”


Throughout African Psycho, Mabanckou gives insight into the state of affairs in Congo-Brazzaville, including racial tensions and the Congolese media’s knack for inflated journalism. In one scene, Gregoire recounts a televised interview between a journalist and a witness to one of Angoualima’s brutal murders:

“Well then, another concrete question that viewers must be asking themselves and that I myself am asking myself: how does he [Angoualima] go about peeing? Because he must surely pee like we do! Answer while still looking into camera C, please…”

“He pees every hour: one thing for peeing even hours and another thing for peeing odd hours, trust me!”

“Quite unbelievable!"

According to Gregoire, “The interview, which he granted exclusively to the journalist, remains engraved in our memories. It is reportedly dissected every year in our journalism schools, where its technique is called ‘Well then? Trust me!’ [‘Et alors? Croyez-moi!’].”

“Congolese journalists like to exaggerate,” Mabanckou explains. “I wanted, in my novel, to joke on this aspect. I also believe that, in this world, information is often amplified. I like, for example, watching Muhammad Ali’s fight in 1974 in Kinshasa [DRC] and the comments of the American journalists just before that famous fight.” He refers to the infamous 1974 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, aptly titled Rumble in the Jungle, in which words of liberation, Good with a capital “G” and Evil with a capital “E” were thrown around in high anticipation of the event, not to mention the fact that the fight sparked the advent of ex-con turned boxing mogul Don King.

In due respect, the day after Mabanckou’s soon-to-be famous “Et alors? Croyez-moi!” interview, it is revealed that the witness and the journalist’s heads were “found on the wild coast, each of them with a Cuban cigar screwed between the lips. From then on this part of the coast would be called ‘Well then? Trust me!’…”
The Country Over There

Mabanckou places Gregoire in a shantytown named He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot (Celui-qui-boit-de-l'eau-est-un-idot), which borders what Gregoire calls “the country over there.” Employing onomastic devices, Mabanckou names just about every setting using literal lingala translations: there’s the local watering hole, Take And Drink, This is The Cup of My Blood; One-Hundred-Francs-Only Street, a road known for its shabby shanties of planks and mountains of refuse outside the lots; Daddy-Happiness-That’s-Me Street; and The-Dead-Who-Are-Not-Allowed-to-Sleep, the local cemetery which houses idolized murderer Angoualima’s unmarked grave.

The story of the neighborhood’s name, Gregoire speculates, is that “it is in this neighborhood that one counts the greatest number of watering holes. The population swears by beer, red wine, or palm wine only. In these conditions, he who drinks water really is an idiot.”

It is this neighborhood, He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-an-Idiot, where most characters from “the country over there” immigrate. “When Gregoire refers to ‘the country over there,’ he refers to the other Congo, ex-Zaïre,” Mabanckou explains. “My country, The Republic of the Congo, and Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) formerly formed a large empire which was divided at the time of the Conference of Berlin in 1884, when France and Belgium were disputing the African territories. Finally, France colonized the Congo-Brazzaville, and Belgium colonized the Congo-Belgium.” When asked about the prostitutes in the novel that flock from DRC via rowboat to Congo-Brazzaville, Mabanckou says, “Between the two Congos there are jokes of this kind, as there are between Belgium and France or France and England. In both Congos we speak the same language, lingala. We have the same culture. There is no animosity.”

While there is no animosity between the two nations, the DRC witnessed the Second Congo War from 1998 to 2003. Sometimes known as “Africa’s World War,” the conflict involved nine African nations and twenty armed groups. Before a transitional government took over the DRC, an estimated 3.8 million people died, mainly from starvation and diseases, proving the war to be possibly the deadliest conflict since WWII. Several million survivors wound up homeless and sought shelter in neighboring countries, including Congo-Brazzaville.

Picked-up Children

In addition to media fiascos and their ensuing consequences, Mabanckou reveals that Gregoire is one of many “picked-up children” in Congo-Brazzaville. By “picked-up children,” of course, Mabanckou refers to children who are left in the streets to fend for themselves. “Many children are abandoned in the street, especially after the civil wars of the '90s. These children wander in the city and in the markets,” Mabanckou says, “and sometimes they are transformed into gangsters like Gregoire [and Angoualima].” When Gregoire encounters Angoualima’s spirit at the cemetery after a failed murder attempt, he showers his master with praise and affection. He remarks that, like Angoualima, he too was a “picked-up child.” Immediately, Angoualima’s spirit scolds him for using such foul terminology. “Shut up, imbecile! You think you now have the right to call me a picked-up child because we are on familiar terms? … You weren’t even born when I was young, so don’t go spreading what the street says about me! … Picked-up child! I don’t like this term!”

As a result of civil conflict since 1997, the numbers of street children in Brazzaville has increased exponentially. This includes groups of children from the DRC who, having crossed the Congo River by stowing away on ferries, hope for better living conditions in Congo-Brazzaville. UNICEF estimates that at least 20 percent of street children in Congo-Brazzaville are from the DRC; NGOs (Non-governmental organizations), however, estimate that the numbers reach up to 50 percent. Oftentimes, these children fall into prostitution and drug smuggling as a means for survival. In African Psycho, after going through several rich foster families and even blinding a foster brother, Gregoire becomes a street child himself, where he begins his life of petty crime.

African Literature in the US

When asked about African Psycho’s pre-publication buzz, Mabanckou can hardly contain his excitement. “I hope to continue the translation of my five other books,” he says. “French-speaking African literature is not very well-known in the United States. This is also a way to make known the Congolese literature in America.”

Richard Nash, publisher at Soft Skull Press, says, “There are two sets of reactions [to Mabanckou’s book] -- one to the title: everybody loves it! The other is the post-Prix Renaudot buzz. Especially because [Mabanckou] beat Jonathan Littell, whose book was steamrollering all the others and was just picked up by Harper Collins for over $1 million.”

Mabanckou is also a professor at UCLA, where he teaches francophone African literature. “I propose to the American students novels from African authors of the rising generation, like Abdourahman Waberi, Gaston-Paul Effa or Fatou Diome” he says. “But I also teach the bases of African literary history, and thus authors like Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor or Camara Laye.”

While Mabanckou’s novel has promise in the anglophone world, Nash reminds us about the issues surrounding translation at a small press: “Translation at small publishers is hell because of the upfront costs. You have to license the rights, and you have to pay a translator, which quadruples the upfront costs. One thing an independent press doesn’t have is capital -- upfront money. But if we don’t do it, who will…?”

English readers can look forward to more of Mabanckou in the next two years. Broken Glass (Verre Cassé) and Memoirs of a Porcupine (Mémoires de porc-épic) are set to be translated in 2007 and 2008.