Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass does not give us what we might expect from an African novel. There is no heroic character struggling against poverty or oppression; instead we have an unsympathetic narrator who has given up. Even his nickname, Broken Glass, suggests his incorrigible nature:
“…you can’t do anything to me, whoever heard of mending a Broken Glass…”
Having lost his job as a teacher, and his wife, he now spends his days in a bar, drinking and writing down the stories of those around him. Even this almost purposeful activity begins as a joke:
“let’s say the boss of the bar Credit Gone West gave me this notebook to fill, he’s convinced that I – Broken Glass – can turn out a book because one day, for a laugh, I told him about this famous writer who drank like a fish…”
The novel is written in a rambling style appropriate to its drunken narrator; long paragraphs cascading down the page without full stops and new chapters beginning abruptly without capitalisation. This is not to say it is in any way confusing to read – each chapter tends to focus on one story, usually based around another of the bar’s customers.
The novel opens as if Mabanckou’s main purpose was political satire. When the Minister for Agriculture hits on a memorable, if vacuous, catch phrase (“I accuse”), the President responds with anger:
“…he wished he had said it himself, and couldn’t understand why his own advisors hadn’t come up with a similarly short but snappy slogan…”
A desperate search for just such a phrase begins. The events which follow would not seem out of place in an episode of In the Thick of It, and neither would the chosen slogan, “I have understood you.”
However, from then on the novel is largely a series of hard luck stories told to Broken Glass by customers in the bar. These are amusing but suffer from the law of diminishing returns, particularly as they all tend to revolve around betrayal by a woman. They certainly highlight powerlessness and injustice, with one man (“the Pampers guy” – here everyone is known by a nickname) ending up in prison without trial, and another, the Printer, in an asylum. (The latter takes place in France, suggesting that such treatment is not confined to Africa).
Broken Glass’s own story involves his anger at his wife for eventually leaving him, though most readers will sympathise with this decision as his unrepentant drinking, which culminates in his dismissal from his teaching position, becomes quite wearing even in the course of the novel. Here is his own description of his final days as a teacher:
“I apparently even used to turn up late for classes when I’d been drinking, and apparently I used to show my buttocks to the children in anatomy class, and apparently I used to draw giant sex organs on the board, and apparently I even used to piss in a corner of the classroom…”
Throughout it all he is unrepentant, revealing a nihilism in his drinking which seems as much a determination not to change as a need for alcohol.
For all its humour, the novel increasingly becomes a cry of despair, as the references to The Catcher in the Rye in the final chapters make clear. These are simply the most obvious of the allusions to both Western and African culture throughout. The intention may be to show that we cannot simply dismiss the narrator as ignorant and uncultured, or it may be that the writer wants to illustrate that, despite its naïve narrative style, the novel is as crafted as any other.
Broken Glass is an interesting novel as it portrays its African setting (the Congo) with an unabashedly modern slant. Mabanckou teaches French literature in California, and the most obvious influences are French and American. While it is ultimately despairing, the novel is often humorous, though the humour is frequently of a scatological kind (one of the funniest scenes in the book is a pissing contest). It is, however, rather uneven in its purpose: initially satiric, then tending towards set piece stories, and finally focusing largely on its narrator.
Could it win? It certainly has impact, but probably lacks the depth. It’s a slender 165 pages and structurally unconvincing.