‘Verre Cassé’ (‘Broken Glass’) by Alain Mabanckou (Review)

IMG_5308As is the case for many readers, my choice of books can be made by simple random connections, and after enjoying Tram 83 recently, I remembered that there was another African book on the shelves, one also looking at a bar.  Even better, the two writers’ home countries share a border…  That was all the convincing I needed to push on, taking myself across the river from the ‘big’ Congo, to the little one for another spot of bar-hopping.  Feel welcome to tag along, but make sure you bring some cash – there are no bar tabs here…

*****
Alain Mabanckou’s Verre Cassé (Broken Glass) is actually a person, a regular at the splendidly named twenty-four hour bar Le Crédit a voyagé (Credit Gone West in the English translation*).  A former teacher and a bit of an intellectual, our friend is one day given a notebook by the owner of the bar and asked to undertake an unusual task:

“…et lorsqu’il m’avait remis ce cahier, il avait tout de suite précisé que c’était pour lui, pour lui tout seul, que personne d’autre ne le lirait, et alors, j’ai voulu savoir pourquoi il tenait tant à ce cahier, il a répondu qu’il ne voulait pas que Le Crédit a voyagé disparaisse un jour comme ça…”
p.11 (Éditions du Seuil, 2005)

“…and when he handed me this notebook, he said straight away that it was for him, for him alone, that no-one else would read it, and then I wanted to know why he was so set on this notebook, he replied that he didn’t want Credit Gone West to just disappear like that one day…”***

Wanting the bar to live on in posterity, and fearing the fragile oral culture of his country, the bar owner has Broken Glass write down stories of the regulars, so that the bar’s fame will endure long after the last glass of cheap red has been served.

The old man dutifully takes up his pen and starts to write down the stories he hears – and entertaining ones they are too.  From the bar’s precarious beginning, when certain politicians have to step in to protect it from various groups who want it shut down, to a couple of men let down (badly) by the women in their life, the first half of the book is devoted to several interesting, funny and at times disturbing stories.  Random anecdotes?  Not quite.  Later on, we start to see that old Broken Glass is choosing his stories very carefully indeed.  It turns out that what appears in the book is less about the bar and more about him…

A couple of years back, I read Black Bazaar, an entertaining book about Africans in Paris, but Broken Glass takes us back to the writer’s roots, showing us where the characters of Black Bazaar started – and where they might return one day.  Mabanckou is an excellent writer with a formidable style, here creating a sweeping text devoid of full stops, a flow of words which stretches across chapters.  The novel is incredibly funny in places, even if, for some people, the humour might be a little too earthy (not to say cruel…).

Broken Glass is a good choice for the task of putting the stories of the bar to paper as he’s a man others seek out.  A listener in a land of talkers, he knows just how to draw stories out from those around him:

“…et s’il y a un secret que je pourrais livrer ici c’est que, pour faire parler les gens, il faut jouer la distance, l’indifférence, en un mot le désintérêt, y a pas mieux que ce stratagème vieux comme le monde pour déclencher les choses…” (p.62)

“..and if there’s a secret I could reveal here it’s that if you want to make people talk, you have to be distant, indifferent, in a word, uninterested, nothing better than this strategy, old as the world itself, to get things started…”***

It turns out that the bar owner is right in a way – stories only exist when they’re written down.  Of course, the problem is that when you listen to these stories, and the frequent, inevitable tangents they’re accompanied by, you have to have the patience to trust the stories will eventually make their way to the point they were trying to make…

Although I enjoyed the stories, I gradually became a little wary of Mabanckou’s intentions.  The first two tales told by customers end in disaster, both men betrayed by the women in their life.  By the middle of the book, there’s a sense of a real gender battle, with women being the root of all evil, the bane of the poor men’s existence, their jealous actions bringing true suffering in their wake.  The reader (or this reader, at least) begins to wonder just where Mabanckou is going with this.

His intention only really becomes clear in the second half of the book.  As Broken Glass tires of the stories of others, he begins to reveal a few secrets of his own, and it’s here that the writer’s clever construction of the novel becomes apparent.  Once we’re permitted a glimpse into the old man’s past, the reason for the tone of the first half becomes clear, with the novel gradually catching up with the present and offering a sad glimpse into the future.  It’s important when reading the book to remember that there are two writers here, Mabanckou and our old friend propped up at the bar.  I’m not sure we can trust either of them…

In addition to a well-worked story and the excellent style, part of the novel’s charm is its raft of clever literary allusions.  Broken Glass is an educated man, and the text abounds with witty references to Cervantes, Shakespeare, Gogol and even Proust:

“…je suis allé errer vers le quartier Rex, à l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs…” (p.126)

“…I went for a wander over to the Rex Quarter, in the shadow of young girls in bloom…”***

Of course, this is where our friend’s cultured persona clashes with his earthier side – when he used these words, I’m not sure Marcel was talking about the red-light district 😉

As is the case in Tram 83, the bar in Broken Glass functions as the centre of a community, albeit one which is a little different in style.  Where the Tram was a pulsating cesspit of human desires, Le Crédit a Voyagé works at a more relaxed pace.  It’s somewhere you can sit and while the day away with bottles of local red wine.  Relax, stay a while (all night if you want), chat with friends, tell uncle Broken Glass about your troubles and have a drink or seven while you’re at it – provided, of course, that you can pay 😉

Crude at times, but witty and well written, Broken Glass is a great read, and I definitely enjoyed my few days at the Crédit (where I certainly felt safer than at the notorious den of iniquity over the border…).  With a sad tinge behind the humour, perhaps it’s not a book that follows Tram 83‘s demand to promote the joys of Africa ahead of its woes, but it’s still a book many will enjoy.  Time, then, to head for home – but first, let’s drink to the end of a successful week’s reading (and clubbing) in Africa 🙂

*****
* There is an English translation (by Helen Stevenson) available from Serpent’s Tail in the UK and Soft Skull Press in the US
*** All translations here are my own efforts 🙂

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