Few novelists working today are as obsessive about citation, reference, and homage as Alain Mabanckou, and none quite so ambivalent about the caché those allusions to literary history carry. In Black Moses, the latest addition to Mabanckou’s series of novels about the Congolese port city of Pointe-Noire, he uses those references to prop the specter of the western canon over the journey of his titular hero (Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yayoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, or Moses for the uninitiated) from an orphanage to a madhouse, with stops amongst the city’s gangsters, prostitutes, and vagrants in between.
Mabanckou’s invocations of the canon appear light hearted at first, as when he dubs three members of the gang that Moses joins “the Three Mosquiteers” because the trio drapes mosquito nets over their heads to ward off pests. Another gangster enjoys drawing “old ladies’ breasts on the front of public buildings and claimed it would get him into paradise.” His name? “St Francis of a Titty.”
These flippant invocations are a signature of Mabanckou’s work. In 2010’s Broken Glass, he quotes Zola, mentions Diogenes, and slips in phrases culled from Kierkegaard, Shakespeare, and Faulkner— and that’s just in the first 30 pages. That novel, like Black Moses, covers subject matter somewhat less lofty than those touchpoints would suggest: a man drinking himself to death at a bar and swapping stories with whoever stops in. His interlocutors include a man who “goes around wearing Pampers,” a printer who claims friendship with a Parisian named Céline, and Robinette, “the piss queen of the town” (so-called because she’s really, really good at peeing).
The genesis of Broken Glass’ conceit goes back to The Canterbury Tales, and it shares Chaucer’s bawdiness (Mabanckou’s book, though, is like 1/16 as long and doesn’t use periods, so maybe we shouldn’t get carried away with that particular comparison). But Mabanckou’s humor, crucially, is charged with resentment. When a cleaning woman tells Moses that the reason her mother wanted a child with light skin is that “it was all part of the complex we had about white people, anything white was superior, everything black was doomed, with no future, no tomorrow,” it’s easy to construe Mabanckou’s project as an attempt to upend this mentality by dunking on dead Frenchmen. But the point is not simply to make fun of Alexander Dumas’ staid moralism. No, Mabanckou is in the subversion game. Black Moses rejects white culture, sure, but not because black culture is any better. To him, an obsession with any culture is in practice little more than a way to differentiate the powerful from the poor. His aim is not to change what we think of when we use the term Literature. It is to dismantle the very idea of a canon.
Late in the book, Moses loses his memory, and visits two doctors to try and get help. The first is a neuropsychologist eager to remind his patient he studied in Paris, and who, after a few sessions, is eager to offer a number of unsatisfactory diagnoses, “each more amphigorical than the last.” Frustrated, Moses turns to a traditional healer, who, though not given a Western education, nevertheless claims an impressive C.V.:
Direct and legitimate descendant of King Makoko
Former personal sorcerer to the mayor, the prefect, and the President of the Republic
Specialist in incurable illnesses, both known and unknown
Guaranteed return of errant wives within 24 hours
Ngampika prescribes Moses a night in his house. “My masks need to watch you sleep,” he tells Moses, “While you’re asleep they can enter your head and remove the impurities.” But Moses’ fractured psyche is not so easily fixed. Having failed to cure him, the doctor accuses Moses of pretending to be sick so that Ngampika would feed him, and Moses storms out.
Traditional medicine, it turns out, is as amphigoric as the Western variety. That descriptor is instructive in understanding Mabanckou’s work: it’s derived from amphigory, a term for a nonsensical verse of poetry. To Mabanckou, the whole canon is amphigory. The windmills Don Quixote sparred with (restyled in Black Moses as electricity pylons), Robin Hood’s green outfit (mimicked in the book by one made by Malian tailors), a Hebrew prophet who Mabanckou rebirths as a Congolese orphan with a 23-syllable name. Mabanckou has read all these books, and true, it’s elevated him from Pointe-Noire to a professorship at UCLA. But has it made him a better person? Mabanckou’s work reveals the vacuousness of scholarship. Literary signifiers are grasped by those who mean to display their intelligence, talent, or their deservedness of power. But as Mabanckou demonstrates, at the end of the day, it’s all just words someone else made up.
Sarak Resnick’s story “Kylie Wears Balmain” in the most recent n+1 is one of the better pieces of short fiction I’ve read all year. It’s a deadpan narrative of the life of a fact-checker at an Us Weekly-style magazine, which obviously hits close to home for your’s truly, but is generally great for moments like this one, when the narrator is describing the appeal of the faces of the celebrity women she spends every day with: “They are the faces of women who flaunt the legacies of feminism and at the same time pronounce its irrelevance. They are the faces of women whom America can understand.”
Thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me on twitter @KPaoletta, or in the gutter, stomping on what few leaves are still stuck there and savoring the crunch.