Alain Mabanckou was no stranger to the Man Booker International’s predecessor, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, having been shortlisted in 2010 for Broken Glass and then long-listed in 2013 for Black Bazaar. He also featured among the ten nominees for the final Man Booker International Prize awarded for a lifetime’s work in 2015. With such a pedigree, it is perhaps no surprise to see him long-listed again this year with Black Moses, translated, as is most of his work, by Helen Stevenson. The novel is set, as is all of Mabanckou’s work, in (and near) the coastal city of Point-Noire in the Republic of the Congo where he was born and brought up. (Though his novels are not – as far as I can tell – linked, he seems intent on painting a detailed picture of his home city in his writing). We can date the novel’s beginning to 1970, when the country is subject to a Marxist-Leninist revolution (Mabanckou was born in 1966).
The novel opens with Moses in his early teens, living in an orphanage on the outskirts of Point-Noire. His happiest moments coincide with the appearance of the priest, Papa Moupelo, to lead them in traditional dances:
“For a couple of hours or more we’d forget who or where we were. Our shouts of laughter rang out beyond the confines of the orphanage.”
When Papa Moupelo fails to appear Moses, and his friend, Bonaventure, fear something is wrong:
“Just look at the warders faces – there’s something there not telling us! You might as well start weeping right now, I’m sure Papa Moupelo is dead.”
In fact, Papa’s disappearance is the result of a Communist revolution, as we see when a sign saying ‘MEETING HUT FOR THE NATIONAL MOVEMENT OF THE PIONEERS OF THE SOCIALIST REVOUION OF THE CONGO’ is nailed to the door of his room and the children are exhorted to:
“…track down enemies of the Revolution, including those living in our own country, with the same colour of skin as ours, who were referred to as the ‘local lackeys of imperialism’.”
The first half of the novel works well as a political satire, as we see the effects of the new regime on the microcosm of the orphanage:
“We never forgot, though, that before the Revolution the three former corridor wardens were just bruisers with zero intelligence. Now the Director had given them an office close to his on the first floor. They shut themselves in there to prepare Pioneers Awake, a propaganda sheet they posted on the wall of the hut of the National Movement of Pioneers every Monday morning.”
This is simply made up of extracts of the President’s speeches and a “passionate editorial” from the Director, who seems to believe the Head of State will read every issue.
In the novel’s second half, however, Moses escapes from the orphanage and heads to Point-Noire in the company of twins who quickly make the step up from bullies to gangsters. From that point on the novel is more in keeping with the picaresque nature of Mabanckou’s previous work. Moses becomes embroiled in various adventures, usually on the fringes of criminality, as his luck goes up and down like a skipping rope. If you haven’t read Mabanckou before, this is both entertaining and enlightening – after all, novels set in the Congo don’t come along every day. However, reading Mabanckou, I can’t help but be reminded of Irvine Welsh – what initially seems vibrant, brave and break-through eventually feels like the same old trick. In this sense Mabanckou is, for me, an author of diminishing returns. This novel, too, diminished in its second half, Mabanckou’s casual use of madness, and an a suddenly climactic ending which felt out of all proportion to anything which had come before, failing to fulfil the promise of its early pages.