August 2010

Jacob Mikanowski


Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson

Émile Zola delivered his J’accuse in an open letter to the president of France protesting the unlawful imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus. In Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass, the jaccuse comes in a speech by the Congolese Minister for Agriculture given in defense of a bar called Credit Gone West in the town of Trois-Cents. Run by resourceful proprietor Stubborn Snail, the bar has lured wives away from their husbands and congregations away from their churches. In response, it is besieged by representatives of different groups: ex-alcoholics who have gone over to “water, Fanta, Pulp’Orange, syrup, Senegalese jungle juice, grapefruit juice and contraband Cola-lite traded for hashish in Nigeria,” guardians of traditional moral values who summon up the voices of the dead and bring forth prophecies, and regular thugs who attack with everything from “gallic bill hooks” to “machetes left over from a killing spree in Rwanda.”

The Agriculture Minister’s fiery appropriation of Zola puts an end to this orgy of violence. Except that, in Mabanckou’s telling, no one in the Republic of the Congo has heard of Zola or his famous quote. The President becomes intensely jealous of the Minister’s phrase and orders his cabinet to think of something equally memorable. The ministers consider famous words from Louis XIV, Napoleon, Lenin, Martin Luther King, Cato the Elder and Blaise Pascal. In the end they settle on “I have understood you,” but without mention of its original use by Charles de Gaulle in Algeria.

Unlike the president’s ministers, Mabanckou combines a deep awareness of the French intellectual and literary tradition with an absolute unwillingness to be cowed by it. This extends to the texture of his prose. Broken Glass is named for its narrator, a disgraced former schoolteacher who spends his days drinking in Credit Gone West. One day the owner gives him a notebook and urges him to fill it up with a novel, all because Broken Glass casually mentions a “famous writer who drank like a fish, and had to be picked off the street when he got drunk.” At first reluctant to write at Stubborn Snail’s behest, he soon resolves write only for himself: “That’s why I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when he reads these pages, I don’t intend to spare him or anyone else.”

The formal technique Mabanckou has him employ is at once simple and daring: the notebook unspools as a single sentence, punctuated only by commas and white space. Despite the lack of signposts, the prose is entirely lucid, a river of speech given shape by the rhythmic alternation of clauses. It’s a remarkably flexible instrument, vulgar, expansive, bawdy and occasionally lyric. Mabanckou shifts registers between Rabelaisian excess and the elevated simplicity of a folktale, while sustaining a constant current of manic loquacity.

It’s also quite a departure from the strictures of classical French prose, with its ruthless drive towards balance, elegance and concision, familiar to anyone who has been forced to prune words from a five-part compte-rendu. Mabanckou, a professor of French literature at UCLA, makes Broken Glass acutely aware of his own leap into experimentation:

I swear, too, that I loved teaching them their past participles conjugated with avoir, and whether you have to make them agree or not depending on the time of day and the weather, and the poor little things, dazed, confused, sometimes even angry, would ask me why the past participle does agree today at four o’clock, but didn’t yesterday at midday, just before lunch break, and I would tell them that what mattered in the French language was not the rules, but the exceptions to the rules, I would tell them that if they could understand, and memorize all the exceptions in this language, which was as changeable as the weather, then the rules would automatically become apparent, they would be obvious from first principles, and when they were grown up they could forget all about the rules and the sentence structure, because by then they would see that the French language isn’t a long quiet river, but rather a river to be diverted 

The stories that Broken Glass tells with this diverted torrent all revolve around the patrons of Credit Gone West. All of them, including his own, are versions of the same story -- men brought down by women and men brought down by booze.

Pampers, so named because he always wears a diaper, was sent to prison by his wife after he cheated on her with some working girls in the Rex district. Mouyeké is a crook, a sorcerer who swindles honest folk with phony charms before being caught, and now spends his time in the bar “bleating his woes to a line of wine bottles.” The Printer used to work in Paris, for a firm that printed Paris Match. He wore Dior dress shirts and hired “miserable, unemployed people” of all races. He even had a French wife, a full-figured beauty from the Vendée named Céline. Everything was going well until he caught her in bed with his son.

Tales of madness and sexual humiliation, physical collapse and moral degradation fill the pages of Broken Glass’s notebook. Among the sordid details, references to high and low culture have a way of turning up in unexpected places. In a back-alley pissing match, one contestant draws a map of France, complete with all the departments and Corsica, with his urine. A surly bar patron imitates Holden Caulfield. An incestuous couple performs a sex position named for a novel by Mongo Beti. As Broken Glass’s focus shifts from the bar patrons to his own life, these references increase. He recalls his father, for whom “life meant jazz and palm wine, Coltrane, Monk, Davis, Bechet,” and muses on his own literary idols, who include Marquez, Hemingway, Pasternak, Tagore, and Hugo.

But for all this density of citation, Mabanckou never succumbs to the anxiety of influence. In this novel, literature is a flavor of daily life, and daily life is a comedy built on appetite and bodily farce. Contemplating a delicious dish of bicycle chicken from roadside stand, Mabanckou reflects: “all the rest is literature, bad Black-African literature, the kind you find on the banks of the Seine, it’s just babble, people talk but they still eat their local dog or cat kebabs.”

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 1593762739
176 Pages