By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Alain Mabanckou is my latest literary obsession; in 2017, I’ve read three of his novels and one memoir, and every single one is remarkable in its own right. The most recent, the Man Booker International-longlisted Black Moses, is no exception. Described in its blurb as “the larger-than-life story of an African Oliver Twist who thinks he’s Robin Hood,” it’s a raucous bildungsroman which you are going to want to read.
The affection we showed our priest came from the bottom of our hearts, and we looked for nothing in return except the kindness in his eyes, which gave us strength, while the Director’s sullen mien served only to remind us we were children to whom life’s normal course had been sadly denied. The way that people looked at us said it all: to the Pontenegrins, ‘orphanage’ meant ‘prison,’ and you went to prison for committing a serious offence, or maybe even a crime…
The Moses of the title begins the novel in an orphanage in 1970, troubled equally by the disappearance of Papa Moupelo, his beloved father figure, and the politics of the People’s Republic of Congo, forced upon Moses and his equally unfortunate peers by Dieudonne Ngoulmoumako, a cruel and heartless political wannabe about whom the greatest compliment Moses can muster is to say that, “he didn’t usually persecute us at weekends.” Eventually escaping his childhood for Pointe-Noire, Moses’ story shifts and turns, taking in crime, madness and ostracisation; rather than guaranteeing him future greatness, his cumbersome name (translated as “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors”) torments him, as he leaves behind his one real friend at the orphanage for a life of infamy.
Black Moses includes a number of features familiar to me from Mabanckou’s other novels; the extended character studies, the gradually disintegrating narrator and the interference of certain substances, for example. Black Moses features a vast array of characters, each odd and off-putting and yet somehow heroic in their own peculiar way. Compared to Dickens on its cover, there is definitely something Dickensian about Mabanckou’s often morally or socially grotesque creations (although, to entirely betray both my British passport and teaching profession, I’ve never been a huge fan of Dickens, whose by-the-word payment contract renders his works far more brick-like than Mabanckou’s slender tomes). These vignettes provide the reader with plenty of quirky detail, sometimes affectionate, but often bitter; Papa Moupelo, for example, “struggled to park his car in the yard, and would repeat the same manoeuvre maybe five or six times, though the worst driver in the world could have done it with his eyes shut.” The hated Director, by contrast, “was an old, fat, bald man of Bembe descent, a people known for settling the slightest disagreement with a knife, feeding children cat meat, and judging the wealth of any given person solely by the number of pigs he slaughtered.” There’s a real richness to the detail offered, all of which makes the reader empathise entirely with Moses, even as his behavior becomes more and more bizarre.
Mabanckou’s previous novels have taken personal paths, focusing on individuals with politics largely absent, while Moses’ personal crises are set against and often indirectly provoked by the politics of the region. A round-up of Zairian prostitutes by an ambitious mayor, for example, robs Moses, or Little Pepper as he is later known, of his latest adopted family, with dramatic consequences, while his fate is heavily influenced by the ambitious politicking of the orphanage’s Director in the novel’s early chapters. It has always been my preference to find my way through the intricacies of diverse periods of history through literature, and Black Moses gave me a smattering of terms to research; the novel takes place just after the creation of the Conglese Party of Labour, the Marxinist-Leninist pro-Soviet party which founded the People’s Republic of the Congo. Anyone lacking an encyclopaedic knowledge of the 20th century African politics should not be put off, however; the historical context is a notable feature, but not one which renders the novel bogged down in real life detail.
I initially came to Mabanckou’s work as part of a conscious mission to read literature from countries with whose literature I was unfamiliar, and discovering his novels has made me feel particularly pleased with this lofty ambition. Black Moses follows in the footprints of his previous novels, with its antiheroic protagonist, complex supporting characters and anarchic humor, neatly juxtaposed with tragedy. It’s probably the most accessible of the Mabanckou novels I’ve read so far, so a superb starter for anyone new to his work.