Journey home: Alain Mabanckou. Photo: BARBARA ZANON/GETTY IMAGES
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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.

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.

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. 

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia