When life lets you down, all that's left is to get drunk and spin a few stories. This is an unusually shaggy collection. Its origin is a drinking den in Brazzaville, capital of the former French colony of the Republic of the Congo. The bar is called Credit Gone Away, a clue to its sleazy charms.
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The author of seven novels and six collections of poetry, Alain Mabanckou is already well known and celebrated across the Francophone world. His novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages, including Hebrew, Korean, Spanish, Catalan, and Norwegian. He is widely acknowledged as one of the most important and decorated authors writing in French today.
Mabanckou, a Congolese writer who moved to Paris at the age of twenty-two to pursue a career in law, has spoken extensively about the challenges of breaking into the literary establishment.
He considers it one of the primary challenges that writers of his generation face—those born into independent Africa but whose work has yet to receive the kind of international attention and prestige enjoyed by those of the Parisian or American literary establishment. This first-world acceptance is also an issue at the heart of his larger literary project, which regularly explores the diversity of the Francophone world.
This process seems to have begun, and Mabanckou is in good company in his mission. The English-language publication of Broken Glass , translated by Helen Stevenson, promises to keep the attention on this group of dynamic and innovative writers. Broken Glass is narrated from the perspective of its title character, an ex-teacher with too great a love for Congolese palm wine.
He now spends his days with the cast of characters who frequent the bar Credit Gone West. Stubborn Snail, the owner of the bar, has given former aspiring author Broken Glass a notebook in which to record the life and stories of his bar. This task is not particularly challenging.
The diverse group that frequents Credit Gone West is all too eager to share their stories of heartbreak, ruin, and destruction as soon as they learn of the project. She persuades the police that the incest in question was actually between the Printer and their two young daughters. The Printer is institutionalized and, eventually, deported back to Africa, at which point he takes up the drink and suffers himself to the constant company of the Black community he had grown to despise as a young man in Paris.
In fact, though Broken Glass ruminates regularly on his sex life or lack thereof, since his wife kicked him out , there seem to be almost no females present in Credit Gone West. Mabanckou draws heavily on his predecessors as he pursues this project, and it is perhaps one of the most notable characteristics of Broken Glass that it is absolutely littered with literary allusions. French writers from Rimbaud to Chateaubriand find good representation in the pages of Broken Glass.
Many of the authors he references, even only in passing, are those who have tackled the challenges of constructing a literary national narrative before him. He not only mentions but also incorporates the techniques of his well-referenced authors. His work is, in this sense, perhaps best compared to the Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake , blending irreverence, humor, incisive national critique, and literary innovation together in one text.
Yet, although Mabanckou may well be worthy of the increasing critical attention he receives, this novel does not herald a writer likely to take the place of Joyce. Broken Glass is a fast and enjoyable read, particularly for those who relish in his particular brand of literary pun, but many of his stylistic innovations are inconsistent and occasionally fall flat.
Of course, it is difficult to ascertain how much of this may be due to the challenges of translation. In many instances, the endless stream of commas make grammatical sense even if they would be mangled by any traditional proofreader , but the text regularly indicates clear breaks in thought and narrative that appear to be willfully marked by commas rather than periods.
This means that the reader sometimes glosses over significant portions of the novel as she stumbles through the language. In the least successful passages, the style is just distracting.
But Mabanckou is redeemed by the self-conscious literariness and irreverence of his writing. All the inhabitants of Credit Gone West are, in fact, obsessed with the stories of their past — both their glories and the extreme failures that led them to live out their old age in the bar.
They have hardly forgotten, at least on a personal level. In this way, Broken Glass is not exactly a novel of memory. It is a novel about the way we understand and mediate our collective histories, especially the histories of those who fall outside of mainstream national narratives. For Mabanckou, this has national, personal, and literary importance.
In an interview with Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina for Bomb Magazine , Mabanckou recounts his early experiences with the French language:. First of all, I learned French when I was six. I was shocked to see later on that there was no literature in these languages. When I was in high school, we first read Anglophone literature. So I discovered that in Kenya, for instance, you can have great literature in Kikuyu and Swahili. I was frustrated that that was not the case for Congo: my practice of literature is still in the colonial language.
I cannot express something directly to my people…. In Broken Glass , this oral tradition is brought to bear on the stories of this collection of Congolese riffraff, and marvelously so.
The most difficult challenge to entering the literary establishment lies in opening the world to these kinds of stories, told in the meandering language of an alcoholic ex-teacher and ambitious literateur. More Posts 6.
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This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access. Helen Stevenson. New York. Soft Skull Press. Bizarre, harrowing, and humorous even in its darkest moments, Broken Glass entails many of the stylistic experiments and musings that would eventually position Mabanckou as a master of his craft.
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