Alain Mabanckou has become one of the most important (and well known) Franco-African writers today. Among other prizes he was awarded the prestigious Prix Renaudot for Mémoires de porc-epic (Memoirs of a Porcupine) in 2006. His novel, Blue Blanc Rouge, written 1993-1995 and originally published in France in 1998, has finally now been expertly translated into English as Blue White Red by Alison Dundy. The brief novel, set in Pointe-Noire (Congo Brazzaville) and Paris, tells the story of one young Congolese living the dream to become a “Parisian” and return to his home country as a “dandy”. One experience that stood for many at the time.
The novel opens, however, with the first person narrator thrown into a dark cell of some kind, not really knowing by whom, where and why, no longer able “to distinguish between dream and reality…” Nightmarish wild thoughts tumble over each other in the captive’s mind; shady figures appear like shadows before his eyes while he is desperately trying to hang on to. He muses that he needs order in his thoughts, that recalling the chronology of events may lead him to a way out of this cul-de-sac of a situation: Yes, start at the beginning! And that is what he does, mostly, in what follows. Whether he will be freed and, most importantly, how he ended up in these desperate circumstances in the first place becomes the primary story of this engaging novel that won Alain Mabanckou France’s Grand Prix littéraire d’Afrique Noire in 1999. Blue White Red stands at the beginning of the author’s remarkable and multifaceted career as a novelist, essayist and poet.
Blue White Red (you realize the colours of France’s flag) is presented from the perspective of Massala-Massala, a young Congolese man with a dream. A dream that many young Africans of his generation shared: move to Paris, make a lot of money, live the good life there… and come home regularly to bring presents to family and friends … and spread the dream to others. An infectious attraction to a world that appears easy and full of fun, where young men can afford the latest fashion in clothes, perfumes, hairstyles and in skin-lightening treatments. Those who return on regular visits home are called the Parisians, and, while in their old neighbourhood, are followed by throngs of admirers. There is another group of emigrants, the “Peasants”, those who work in the provinces in France, without any of the glamour or the features of a dandy. Mabanckou’s portrayal of the Parisians is tongue-in-cheek, satirical and mocking, of course. He does that extremely well, indirectly and subtly, given he writes in his hero’s voice as somebody who is completely taken by the façade of his idol. This contrast between the naïve musings of the narrator and the reader’s sense that things are undoubtedly not like they seem, makes for entertaining as well as thought provoking reading.
Massala-Massala’s neighbour, Moki, is the local Parisian, who returns every year loaded with money and gifts, holding court in the ‘house’ (renovated, expanded palatially) next door. Our narrator follows him around, offering any assistance needed locally… he wants to be his shadow, even imitating his walk and gestures. As luck has it, Moki offers to help him to get to Paris and, after lengthy preparations, eventually, the young man enters the City of Light…
From the first moments onwards the description of our hero’s experiences in Paris is filtered through the retrospective time lens of memory, deepened by personal musings about people and local settings: “Everything flows in the slowness of memory. The past is not just a worn-out shadow that walks behind us. It can be ahead of us, precede us, bifurcate, take another path and gets lost somewhere… I must remember.” Then, quickly, he returns to the action of the day, keeping the reader’s attention. Interspersed are his doubts about his own behaviour, his easy trusting his friend Moki, his “adaptability” to whatever role he was assigned and that made him ignore early warning signs.
Massala-Massala recalls his father’s cautionary advice, but, maybe, it comes too late. The author combines his convincing depiction of people and scenarios with a deep understanding of and concern for the underlying socio-political tensions and challenges that young people have faced not only in his home country but across Africa in the early years after independence – and to some degree in many places still today. Mabanckou focuses in this and his later novels on the complexity of Congolese society; his satire becomes more biting, his criticisms of local attitudes more direct.
Yet, this debut novel shows much of his style and substance in remarkable ways. He has become known not only as an imaginative story teller in the best African tradition; he enriches his writing by drawing on his astute observation of people and circumstances. Rather uniquely – and what makes reading and translating his work from the original French so challenging – he is an innovator of language and idiom, mixing colloquialisms and images with traditional French (French-French). Both the note by the translator of Blue White Red, Alison Dundy, and the introductory essay by Dominic Thomas are very helpful in this regard. Ms. Dundy’s translation is excellent. Having read Mabanckou in French, I know the challenges she must have faced. Even the name “Moki” was chosen for its underlying meaning in the local language.