Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

November 5, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (2015) Original French title: Petit Piment.

Mabanckou’s novel Black Moses opens like this:

Tout avait débuté à cette époque où, adolescent, je m’interrogeais sur le nom que m’avait attribué Papa Moupelo, le prêtre de l’orphelinat de Loango : Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. Ce long patronyme signifie en lingala « Rendons grâce à Dieu, le Moïse noir est né sur la terre des ancêtres. », et il est encore gravé sur mon acte de naissance… It all began when I was a teenager, and came to wonder about the name I’d been given by Papa Moupelo, the priest at the orphanage in Loando: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. A long name, which in Lingala means ‘Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors’, and is still inscribed on my birth certificate today…

(Translation by Helen Stevenson)

With a name as long as this, a nickname was inevitable, Petit Piment it is in French (Little Pepper), Black Moses in the English translation. The tone of the book is set, the tone of a storyteller who captivates their audience with their tales. How much is true, how much is invented on the spot is debatable. Petit Piment starts the story of his life from his childhood at the orphanage to present time.

Petit Piment has spent all his formative years at the orphanage in Loango, Congo. Papa Moupelo visits the orphans every week until the Marxist revolution hits the country. The orphanage’s director is a fervent admirer of the new president and the orphanage must become a show room for the new power. Exit Papa Moupelo and his mild catechism. Welcome to zealots with the president’s Marxist gospel. Our narrator Petit Piment recalls everyday life at the orphanage with energy and vivid images. The routine, his friends, the staff with a special mention to Niangui who was like a mother to him. As the old staff is progressively replaced by new and obedient staff spewing off Marxist maxims, the orphanage becomes less of a home.

Arrive the twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala. They quickly become the masters of the dormitories, bullying the other orphans into submission. Somehow Petit Piment manages to remain in their good graces. When they decide to evade from the orphanage to go to the economical capital of the country, Pointe-Noire, Petit Piment trails after them. What kind of future does he have in Loango anyway?

So they leave the orphanage, totally ill prepared for the outside world. They never learnt any trade and nothing was made to prepare them for their adult life. From the way Petit Piment talks about his quotidian at Loango, he has no expectations, no idea of what his life could be after the orphanage. It’s no surprise that Petit Piment and associates become partners in crime. Young offender is their career in Pointe-Noire. Their quotidian is now made of violence, bathed in drugs and mixed with prostitution.

I enjoyed Petit Piment as a dark coming of age novel set in the tradition of oral storytelling but I was very disappointed by the ending. Until the last forty pages, I thought it was pretty good, even if it wasn’t as political as expected. I thought I’d read more about the new Marxist power and its impact on the Congolese’s lives. This thread is a bit left aside after Petit Piment left the orphanage. I thought Petit Piment was an engaging character and I enjoyed the Congo setting as I’m always curious about life in other countries.

But the ending seemed blotched. It felt like Mabanckou was on a deadline and didn’t know how to get out of his own story. He found a dubious way out that clashed with the rest of the novel. I’m sure that what he writes about, errand young gangs in Pointe Noire, is a sad reality. I would have liked something more political and the ending drifted too much from the beginning and middle of the book to be saved by great characterization or chiseled prose.

And indeed, Mabanckou’s prose is a special territory in francophone literature. It’s like the Amazonian forest, luxuriant, colorful. Full of exotic images and new ways with the French language. Like in Black Bazaar, I had fun digging out Brassens references in the text. For example, here’s an excerpt from the song La mauvaise reputation.

Quand je croise un voleur malchanceux,

Poursuivi par un cul-terreux;

Je lance la patte et pourquoi le taire,

Le cul-terreux se r’trouv’ par terre.

Je ne fais pourtant de tort à personne,

En laissant courir les voleurs de pommes ;

When I run into an unlucky thief

Chased by a hick

I stick out my foot and why keep it quiet,

The hick finds himself on the ground

Yet I don’t do harm to anyone

By letting apple thieves have a run. 

Translation from the site Brassens With English

And here’s a paragraph by Mabanckou (p133 of my French paperback edition)

Et quand d’aventures je croisais un voleur de mangues ou de papayes poursuivi par un cul-terreux du Grand Marché, je courais après le poursuivant, je lançais aussitôt ma petite patte d’emmerdeur, le cul-terreux se retrouvait par terre tandis que le délinquant, à ma grande satisfaction, prenait la poudre d’escampette et levait son pouce droit pour me remercier. And when I happened to run into a mango or papaya thief chased by a hick from the Great Market, I ran after the chaser, stuck out my pain-in-the-neck’s little foot and the hick found himself on the ground while the petty thief, to my great satisfaction, took off and gave me the thumbs up to thank me.

As you can see if you compare the two French texts, Mabanckou replays the song’s scene with several words borrowed to Brassens. Cul-terreux is not a word we use a lot anymore and when I saw it, I immediately thought about Brassens. That part was fun to me but probably lost in translation. To anglophone readers: do you have footnotes about this in the novel or notes by the translator about Mabackou’s language?

So, if you’ve never read Mabanckou, I’d recommend Black Bazaar first and this one only if you enjoyed his style.

Other reviews : Tony’s at Tony’s Reading List and Philippe’s at Les Livres que je lis. And I’m sure there are other ones as Black Moses was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

  1. November 5, 2017 at 10:39 am

    I’m a HUGE fan of Mabanckou ….as you say his use of language is quite amazing ! Thank you for the Brassens tip off!! I hadn’t noticed that at all ….in my defence Im not really v familiar with many of his songs.
    I agree , the ending of this was very disappointing . My favourite of his books is still Verre Cassé ….Broken Glass …who is one of the best narrators ever invented!

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    • November 5, 2017 at 9:42 pm

      I know you’re a huge fan. Did you read him in French?
      For the Brassens reference, well, I guess you need to know the lyrics by heart to see it.

      I’ll have to read Verre Cassé.

      Like

      • November 5, 2017 at 9:45 pm

        Yes , I’ve only read him in French !! OH is a huge fan of George Brassens…so I’ve heard some ….but I didn’t notice the parallels …so Merci beaucoup !!!

        Like

  2. November 5, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    Isn’t it funny how Georges Brassens influences Alain Mabanckou – you’d think they’d be miles apart and yet… You’ve given me the appetite to dig out both my Mabanckou books and my Brassens recordings (except I had them on records and tapes…)

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    • November 5, 2017 at 9:47 pm

      I find it totally normal to see Mabanckou in love with Brassens. Brassens was also a magician with words and a true poet. He’s like Bob Dylan. And Mabanckou is too in love with the French language to neglect Brassens.

      Like

  3. November 5, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    C’est le seul que j’ai lu … mais j’ai adoré pour son texte imagé et coloré plein. Je note pour Black Bazaar

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    • November 5, 2017 at 9:48 pm

      Bonne nouvelle! Black Bazar t’attend et apparemment, Verre Cassé vaut le coup aussi.

      Like

  4. November 5, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    I’ve got a copy of his Black Bazaar (in English), but haven’t tackled it yet. He seems like an interesting author, but I didn’t take a note of who it was that recommended it to me…

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    • November 5, 2017 at 9:49 pm

      I’ll be happy to read your thoughts on Black Bazaar.

      Like

  5. November 5, 2017 at 6:28 pm

    I wasn’t sold on this anyway but then when you said it was disappointing. Sounds like Broken Glass may be the one to go with.

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    • November 5, 2017 at 9:49 pm

      Yes, Broken Glass seems to be one to try.

      Like

  6. November 6, 2017 at 11:09 pm

    Ah, interesting! I just read my first ever Congolese novel, Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, and Mabanckou wrote the preface. Maybe I’ll try a second now, even with a dodgy ending 🙂

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    • November 6, 2017 at 11:18 pm

      Try Broken Glass or Black Bazaar then.
      Or read Black Bazaar and continue with Danny Laferriere’s How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. (both on the blog)

      Like

  7. November 8, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    I loved Memoirs of a Porcupine and fully intend to read Broken Glass (I’ve also read Mujila’s Tram 83 which Andrew mentions). There’s a lot of good stuff out there, but this, eh, I’ve yet to read a good review of it.

    This just seems one where Mabanckou misfires. Even his fans don’t seem that taken by it so sadly I’m not surprised you weren’t either (and the ending does seem to be a common complaint with it).

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    • November 9, 2017 at 10:26 pm

      Our book club was unanimous about the ending too. Too bad.
      Memoirs of a Porcupine sounded good too.

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