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28 May 2015

Alain Mabanckou’s The Lights of Pointe-Noire is a lyrical meditation on the journey home

Although often marginalised under the broad label of "post-colonial", Mabanckou is emerging as a force in French writing.

By Russell Williams

The Lights of Pointe-Noire
Alain Mabanckou. Translated by Helen Stevenson
Serpent’s Tail, 202pp, £8.99

Alain Mabanckou was born in the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) in 1966 and grew up in the city of Pointe-Noire. In 1989 he left for Paris. There, he studied law, worked as a corporate lawyer and subsequently quit the legal profession after a decade. He published poems and novels and won prestigious literary prizes around the world. He moved to the United States to teach literature at university and secured a professorship at UCLA. Then, after 23 years away from his home town, after his mother and stepfather had died, he decided to revisit his roots. The Lights of Pointe-Noire is a document of this return.

Mabanckou is emerging as a major and distinctive voice in French writing. His work is, however, often marginalised and bundled together under the broad label of “post-colonial” writing. One bookshop I visited in Paris had his work grouped with Caribbean writers, an error of the magnitude of approximately 6,000 miles. He is nevertheless gradually forging a literary identity and, thanks to his translator, Helen Stevenson, attracting an English-language readership. His recent shortlisting for the Man Booker International Prize should alert readers (and bookshop managers) to the ­importance of his work.

Most often, Mabanckou writes stylishly playful first-person narratives. Frequently, as in Broken Glass (2005) and Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty (2010), his fiction takes the form of short, apparently autobiographical vignettes drawn from his recollections of life growing up in the Central African country. Even when the frame of literature is more deforming, as with the magical realism of Memoirs of a Porcupine (2006) or African Psycho (2003), narrated from the perspective of a wannabe serial killer, the presence of the author shines through.

Mabanckou’s Congo is engagingly drawn and is evoked in the light of three influences that permeate his depiction: traditional superstitions and the legacies of French colonial rule and the Marxist-Leninist “scientific socialist” state that followed its ­demise. These overlapping worlds are also encroached upon by a growing American-style global capitalism, exemplified by movies, consumer products and tourism. The narrator’s stepfather – introduced in Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty and revisited in The Lights of Pointe-Noire – mans the reception at the local hotel, welcoming white guests from Europe.

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Mabanckou writes in a self-consciously expressive language that stems from classically correct French rather than French-Congolese dialect. This is a distinct stylistic choice that seems to carry an implicit political charge. Does Mabanckou write from the side of the Congolese or that of their former colonisers? The answer is never entirely clear. Broken Glass, for instance – a lightly absurd novel written without a single full stop – is saturated with references to classics of French literature, including Jean Genet, Michel Houellebecq and Céline. The reader is left to speculate to what extent Mabanckou is satirising or celebrating the relevance of the French literary tradition to his protagonists.

This playful (and often very funny) tone is less characteristic of The Lights of Pointe-Noire. Yet it does have a similarly ambivalent attitude to literary tradition: the return to a long-departed country has been a recurrent trope in much black francophone writing since Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (1939). Moments of nostalgia, such as a visit to a cinema that he passionately frequented as a boy, recall the subjective fusion with the past associated with Proust’s madeleine. The opening words of the novel – “For a long time I let people think my mother was still alive” – nod to the opening of Camus’s L’Étranger (“Aujourd’hui, maman est morte”), establishing a maudlin tone that marks a maturing from the ebullience of Mabanckou’s previous books. The departed mother casts a long shadow, as does a desire to separate reality from literary fantasy.

While Césaire locates the seeds of revolutionary identity in his return home, Mabanckou’s narrator is most concerned with exploring myths. These include local beliefs such as human beings having wild animal doubles but also the patronising European view that the Congolese live in a “paradise of poverty”. Mabanckou challenges the idea that the “introduction of European ways would bring happiness to our country” and interrogates his personal relationship with his homeland, in which the “flow of my existence” is “troubled by the myriad leaves blown down from the family tree”.

Though this latest novel by Mabanckou returns to characters such as the memorable seducer Grand Poupy and incidents such as the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” used in his earlier fiction, it is perhaps not as immediately engaging as his previous books. (It will be a richer experience if you read Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty first.) But The Lights of Pointe-Noire is a thoughtful, lyrical meditation on homecoming that artfully explores the paradoxes of a narrator torn between his new life and the roots of his childhood – and a worthy addition to a rewarding body of work. 

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