It’s time for the next leg of our Man Booker International Prize travels, and the literary world tour today takes us to the Republic of the Congo. We’re here to spend a few hours (or decades) in the company of one of the locals, a boy growing up with just his wits to help him in a place where only the strongest, or most quick-witted, survive. A religious tale or something a tad spicier? That depends on the language you use, I suppose…
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou
– Serpent’s Tail Books, translated by Helen Stevenson
What’s it all about?
On the first page, we’re introduced to a boy at a Congolese orphanage, endowed with a name that indicates he’s destined for great things:
Tout avait débuté à cette époque où, adolescent, je m’interrogeais sur le nom que m’avait attribué Papa Moupelo, le prêtre de l’orphelinat de Loango: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. Ce long patronyme signifie en lingala “Rendons grâce à Dieu, le Moïse noir est né sur la terre des ancêtres”, et il est encore gravé sur mon acte de naissance…
p.11 (Éditions du Seuil, 2015)
Everything began when, as an adolescent, I pondered on the name bestowed upon me by Papa Moupelo, the priest of the Loango orphanage: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. In Lingala, this lengthy name means “Let us praise the Lord, the black Moses is born in the land of our fathers”, and it is even recorded on my birth certificate…
(*** my translation)
However, he’s unlikely to change the world stuck inside the orphanage walls, under the watchful eye of the director Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako (and the various relatives doing his dirty work), so when the chance comes to make a break for it, he’s happy to take a risk and opt for a life in the real world.
Of course, making a name for yourself in the big city of Pointe-Noire isn’t quite as easy as our hero hopes, and even with the ‘support’ of the giant twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala, Petit Piment (Little Pepper), as he’s nicknamed, initially has a tough time of it on the streets. Yet it’s not all bad, and the more he looks around, the better life becomes – if only the city’s mayor, François Makélé, would just leave all the street people alone. Perhaps it’s time for the black Moses to lead his people to freedom…
Mabanckou’s brief foreword dedicates the novel to people he met on a journey back to his native land (described in his non-fiction work, The Lights of Pointe-Noire, a book that is still languishing on my shelves…):
En hommage à ces errants de la Côte sauvage qui, pendant mon séjour à Pointe-Noire, me racontèrent quelques tranches de leur vie, et surtout à “Petit Piment” qui tenait à être un personnage de fiction parce qu’il en avait assez d’en être dans la vie réelle…
In homage to those wanderers of the Côte Sauvage who, over the course of my stay in Pointe-Noire, told me several stories from their lives, and above all to ‘Petit Piment’, who wanted to become a fictional character as he’d had enough of being one in real life… ***
This is his attempt at giving literary life to the underdog and bringing attention to the itinerant players in the big city. This is true not only for the main character, but also for the supporting cast of street kids, prostitutes and orphans.
Petit Piment is very much a story of two parts. The first, set in the orphanage, begins with the happy days spent practicing songs with the Reverend Papa Moupelo and shooting the breeze with his friend Bonaventure. A shift comes, though, when the director decides to enforce socialism on his helpless charges – with Papa gone, there’ll be no more songs and dancing. Life becomes a little tougher, but our young friend knows how to fend for himself, taking revenge on the bullying twins for their attacks on Bonaventure in a manner that ensures his name stands out.
The second half of the novel sees our young friend set loose in the big city, one of a gang of kids stealing at the market (and surviving on a rather unusual diet…). However, Petit Piment is lucky enough to escape this life, at least in part, when he falls in with a local ‘madam’ and her girls, receiving affection and a safe haven. With the addition of a job and a little cabin, life’s looking up until, sadly, it all falls apart when politics interferes in the life taking place on the streets.
Petit Piment is an excellent picture of life in the Congo, packing a lot of colour into its fairly brief story. It’s a country where connections count, and nepotism is less a crime than a necessity:
Ce n’étatit pas donné à n’importe qui de devenir un des dirigeants d’une section de l’UJSC (l’Union de la jeunesse socialiste congolaise). Le gouvernement devait passer au peigne fin les dossiers, et il tenait compte de l’apartenance ethnique des candidats. Comme les nordistes étaient au pouvoir – en particulier les Mbochis -, les responsables de l’UJSC étaient eux aussi des Mbochis, un groupe ethnique qui représentait à peine 3,5 pour cent de la population nationale. C’était dire que Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako avait bataillé pour imposer ses trois neveux qui n’étaient ni nordistes, ni mbochis, mais sudistes et bembés. (p.36)
Not everyone could become one of the section leaders of the UCSY (the Union of Congolese Socialist Youth). The government had to go over all files with a fine tooth-comb and took the ethnic background of the candidates into account. As the northerners were in power – particularly the Mbochis -, the leaders of the UCSY were themselves Mbochis, an ethnic group representing a mere 3.5 per cent of the national population. Which meant that Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako had had to fight to install his three nephews, who were neither northerners nor Mbochis, but rather southerners and Bembés. ***
This mistrust is echoed all round the country, with each helping their own, yet there are still many examples of altruism, with people like the inimitable Maman Fiat 500 going out of their way to help our young hero.
While the central thread of the novel follows Petit Piment’s life, it’s just as much a collection of stories about those he encounters, with Mabanckou providing details about the lives of Papa Moupelo, Sabine Niangui (the half-Cuban orphanage worker who provides a little comfort) and Maman Fiat 500. Of course, where there are heroes, there are also antagonists, and in the twins, the director and, especially, the mayor, our friend has his hands full. We even get anecdotes about some of the bit-part characters too; just don’t ask what Vieux Koukouba, an odd-job man at the orphanage, got up to in his previous career…
Funny, and touching at times, Petit Piment is an entertaining story that eventually comes full circle, a short journey taken the long way round. A slice of life from a place most of us have never visited (and are unlikely to either), it provides a welcome contrast to some of the more serious titles on the longlist, without ever forgetting that life is a serious matter (even if the best way to deal with it is to keep smiling…).
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
As much as I liked it, I’d have to say no. One issue I have is that it takes half the book for him to leave the orphanage, leading to a rather unbalanced novel (a couple of years versus decades). Also, while it’s entertaining enough, is there really that much to it? I’d say not. It’s fun to read, but I can’t say that it’ll stay in my memory for very long.
Will it make the shortlist?
I don’t think so. When the judges settle down to reread their choices, I have my doubts as to how well this will stand up to renewed close scrutiny. It’s been nice having an African novel on the longlist, but I suspect that’s as far as it goes…
Time to leave the black Moses behind and set off on our longest journey yet. We’re off to China to learn about the rise of a city and the people behind it. Let me tell you a story – it all started with a big bang…