April 9, 2009
In his new novel, Black Bazar, the award-winning Congolese author recounts the diverse realities of the African community in France.
There are compliments more meaningful than others. When recent Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Le Clézio, as president of the 2006 jury for France's prestigious Prix Renaudot, cast his ballot for Alain Mabanckou, he knew his vote would be the decisive one. A longtime admirer of the younger man's exuberant works, Le Clézio was helping to confer well-deserved recognition on the gifted writer who, with a handful of novels, has become one of the most distinguished authors writing in French today. The music of his words, which combine distinctive African oral tradition with a jubilant sense of humor, has won Mabanckou a wide readership both in France and beyond its borders. Translated into 15 languages, the Congolese Mabanckou has become an iconic success story of literary globalization, currently dividing his time between Paris and Los Angeles, where he teaches literature at UCLA.
His eyes look a bit tired under his trademark leather cap as he chats in a well-known café near Les Halles. Jet lag, perhaps? "Oh no!" he bursts out with a laugh. "There was a party yesterday at Jip's for the launch of Black Bazar, so I got to bed quite late. But it was wonderful to be back among old friends." In fact, Black Bazar (Editions du Seuil) is set mostly in Jip's, an Afro-Cuban bar on Rue Saint Denis where Mabanckou used to hang out, and the novel is peopled with larger-than-life personalities drawn from the surrounding African community: Paul from the "big Congo", Roger the Franco-Ivorian, Willy the barman...and of course the author's alter ego and protagonist, "Fessologue" (literally "Buttologist"). This modern dandy, with a penchant for hip Italian clothes and Weston shoes, likes to guess women's temperaments according to their derrières.
In the uproarious novel, Mabanckou wittily portrays the African diaspora in Paris, stressing its diversity despite the unity of color. "Black people make themselves prisoners of the image white people have of them. So they think they are united, when it really is a patchwork community with disparate interests. I can tell you dozens of differences between Caribbeans, West Africans and Central Africans! That's really what I tried to portray in this novel."
Lawyer turned writer
Mabanckou's own African roots run deep. He was born in 1966 in Congo, which he jokingly calls the "little" Congo (capital Brazzaville) as opposed to the adjacent "big" one, the Democratic Republic of Congo (capital Kinshasa). Atypically for an African family, he grew up an only child, when all the other houses around were packed with kids. "I would eat dinner with my parents in complete silence," he recalls. "That was sad, of course. But at the time I didn't understand the benefits that solitude would bring me. As a child growing up all alone, all I could do was tell myself wild stories, to populate my solitude with the brothers and sisters I never had. That's what steered me toward literature." Young Alain discovered reading with the famous San-Antonio novels by Frédéric Dard, enjoyed the wry songs of Georges Brassens and dreamed of being a poet, but his artistic ambitions were thwarted by his parents. "They were afraid I might not get a decent job. I was supposed to be a judge or a lawyer; that way I could defend anyone in my family in court!" Granted a fellowship by the Congolese government, he flew to France and entered law school in Paris.
After an MBA at the University of Paris-Dauphine, Mabanckou embarked on a legal career but the longtime admirer of Céline and Rabelais couldn't keep his literary impulses in check. For several years he maintained an exhausting pace, working by day in an affluent law firm and writing at night in his small apartment. Sleep-deprived and overworked, he was hardly cheered by the reception of his poetry collections: The first one sold only a hundred copies. "Back then I was naïve, thinking that once you've written something, the whole world is just waiting to read it..." he says. Success came at last with his first novel, Bleu-Blanc-Rouge (Blue-White-Red), which was published in 1998 and won the Sub-Saharan Africa Literary Prize awarded by the Association of French Language Writers. "It was a total surprise to me," he confesses. "I even thought they had my book mixed up with someone else's!"
Since that breakthrough, Mabanckou has published another seven novels, each one a critical and commercial hit, including Mémoires de Porc-épic (Memoirs of a Porcupine), the dazzling parody of traditional African fables that received the Prix Renaudot in 2006. The author has also ventured into translation, rendering in French an English-language best seller, the violent Beasts of No Nation, by the young US-Nigerian phenomenon Uzodinma Iweala.
Popular in the States
Throughout his endeavors, Mabanckou has nurtured one goal: to see the literature of other Francophone countries break out of its narrow confines. "For so many years, it has been disdained by the Paris establishment, relegated to small editions," says the Congolese writer. "The recent literary prizes awarded to French-speaking writers from other countries are a first step toward recognition, but that's not enough. Francophone literature from outside of France really has to be strong, because it's one of the major ambassadors of the French language. It's no surprise to me that most French texts translated into English have been written by authors who are not from France itself. They have an aperture to the world most Parisian writers don't have. The Anglo-Saxons, and especially the Americans, have understood for many years the importance of writers from dif ferent Anglophone countries."
US scholars, in fact, have taken a keen interest in Mabanckou's work. In 2002, he received a writing fellowship from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he spent three years as an assistant professor. His good reviews-as well as his escalating fame-led to a post as a full professor at UCLA. "This has given me the opportunity to expose my students to the whole spectrum of Francophone literature, from the Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma to the Swiss Albert Cohen. It has also enabled me to discover the United States," he adds, "where I now live eight months a year, in Santa Monica."
It was from this privileged spot that Mabanckou witnessed the election of Barack Obama-he even wrote an article imagining Obama's first 100 days in the White House, which appeared in the French weekly L'Express the day before the US election. The Congolese transplant analyzes the election with a mix of enthusiasm and moderation: "This is a historic redemption for both America and Africa-let's not forget that Africans were also involved in the slave trade. But it also means the collapse of any theory about race. Barack Obama may not be the rescuer most Africans are waiting for. But he still is a powerful symbol of reconciliation."
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