Broken glass by Alain Mabanckou

broken glassI have to admit that I discovered Alain Mabanckou only this year, 2013! He has been writing since the 80s, so I don’t really understand how I had never heard of him.  Plus, he is amongst the best known and most successful writers in the French language. And…I am francophone! ouch…. So much for being  a so-called “well-read” person.  My only excuse is that I live in Canada and not in France.

In any case, it all started at a literary festival he and I attended  last April. He was a very good speaker, very eloquent, and particularly hilarious. His boisterous nature shows in his writing. Most importantly,  l was very impressed by a statement he made, that I still remember to this day. He said something like:  Africa is not only about beads, colors and other such exotics…we are more than that. We should stop portraying ourselves as such..”

I remember feeling outraged. I am very proud of the beads and colors, so what was he talking about? That’s when I knew that I had to read his books. He is obviously a very defiant and outspoken author.

But first a word about the author

Alain Mabanckou (born 24 February 1966) is a novelist, journalist, poet, and academic, a French citizen born in the Republic of the Congo; he is currently a Professor of Literature in the United States. He is best known for his novels and non-fiction writing depicting the experience of contemporary Africa and the African Diaspora in France. Among the best known and most successful writers in the French language and one of the best known African writers in France. He is also controversial and criticized by some African and Diaspora writers for pointing out the responsibility of Africans on their own misfortune.

Just a little comment on this bio found on Wikipedia. The fact that Africans have a responsibility in their continent’s problems does not dissolve other culprits of theirs.  So why are they criticizing Mabanckou exactly? For stating the obvious? We all know some black people were and are still involved in slavery. Does it make the fact that the white people organized the grand scale trade go away. No!  I frankly don’t understand this debate. Their shouldn’t be a debate in the first place, at least not about this specific issue.

About the book

Alain Mabanckou’s riotous new novel centers on the patrons of a run-down bar in the Congo. In a country that appears to have forgotten the importance of remembering, a former schoolteacher and bar regular nicknamed Broken Glass has been elected to record their stories for posterity. But Broken Glass fails spectacularly at staying out of trouble as one denizen after another wants to rewrite history in an attempt at making sure his portrayal will properly reflect their exciting and dynamic lives. Despondent over this apparent triumph of self-delusion over self-awareness, Broken Glass drowns his sorrows in red wine and riffs on the great books of Africa and the West. Brimming with life, death, and literary allusions, Broken Glass is Mabanckou’s finest novel — a mocking satire of the dangers of artistic integrity. Verre cassé has also been the subject of several theatrical adaptations. It was published as Broken Glass, in English translation in 2009.

Have you ever read an entire book without a single period? Well, Broken glass doesn’t have a single one. Guess what, it didn’t really matter for me.  Broken glass defined his own work in the following paragraph:

I’d write down words as they came to me, I’d begin awkwardly and I’d finish as awkwardly as I’d begun, and to hell with pure reason, and method, and phonetics, and prose, and in this shit-poor language of mine things would seem clear in my head but come out wrong, and the words to say it wouldn’t come easy, so it would be a choice between writing or life, that’s right , and what I really want people to say when they read me iswhat’s this jumble, this mess, this muddle, this mish-mash of barbarities, this empire of signs, this chit-chat, this descent to the dregs of belles-lettres, what’s with this barnyard prattle, is this stuff for real, and where does it start, and where the hell does it end?”                                                                                                          

Let me start from the beginning.

I read 5 pages without seeing a period. At that point, I had not yet understood what this story was about exactly. I was seriously asking myself questions. However, I decided not to question the author and just carry on with the reading. And I am glad I did.

Thumbs up to the author for these surprising points:

  • The names of the characters: Broken glass is the name of the principal character. He was nicknamed with this ridiculous handle because he is a  drunkard. In my Wolof language, there is a very funny expression that translated exactly as “broken glass” and it means the same think. The name of the bar is “Credit Gone West” and the owner’s name is the “stubborn snail”. The name of their neighborhood is “three cents”. Obviously, Mabanckou has a lot of imagination. #smh (twitter is taking over my good writing habits)
  • The stories: If I were to choose the two stories that struck me the most, I would say the “president story” and “the guy who was set up by his wife”. They were very familiar but not in the way you would expect them to be.  They were  ludicrous stories with a grain of truth in them, which means that one minute you were crying and the next you were dying of laughter.
  • The reference to classical novels: The author does a lot of referencing to classical work. And I am starting to think that it is his signature. He never actually does it the way you would expect  such thing to be done. I won’t be able to quote anything myself, mostly because I forget almost all the French literature I manage to learn in secondary school. So I did a little research online and voila:

The guardian reviewer said:

 Mabanckou knows his French literature (he teaches that subject at UCLA). Broken Glass is a whistlestop tour of French literature and civilization, and if you don’t know your Marivaux, your Chateaubriand, your ENAs and Weston shoes you’ll miss a lot of the gags (“a quarrel of Brest”, anyone?) – but don’t worry, there are still plenty left.

I will borrow another reference from the blog bookslut just to give you an idea of what I mean by bizarre used of references:

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 j’accuse 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.

Ok, last one. I love this one since I hate French grammar for having too many exceptions:

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 ….                                                                                                           Broken Glass, A. Mabanckou

Credit: http://www.bookslut.com/fiction/2010_08_016446

  • Overall tone of the book:. It was sometimes hilarious, sometimes downright nasty, sometimes very sad and other times very crazy. All said and done, it was very strange. Did I said it was funny?

I recommend this book, if you are anything like me, you will like it just because it is different.

Did you read this book? What did you think?

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2 responses to “Broken glass by Alain Mabanckou

  1. I read his short story in Gods and Soldiers I guess….. I found it quite different and difficult to understand. I heard he recently published a new book ….. nice.. I look forward to reading more of his works.

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