You might get in trouble at the Credit Gone West, Brazzaville most infamous shady bar, when expressing too loudly a ready-made opinion like “when an old person dies in Africa, a library burns”. Hating worn-out clichés, the tavern’s owner Stubborn Snail is likely to retort on a bitter tone that it all depends on the old person’s education. Much like Stubborn Snail, one of his juiciest characters, Alain Mabanckou takes an evident pleasure at countering our usual understanding of Africa. Broken Glass published in 2010 by Soft Skull Press is another example of the Congo-Brazzaville-born author’s ambitious enterprise to change the perception of the continent. Miles away from Afro-pessimist moaning, this book published by Serpent’s Tail evokes a vibrant – if not freaky – Africa: a place where people live, love and laugh like everywhere else; a place where some also drink too much bad liquor and recall vivid stories of mad ambition and broken dreams.
A retired professor and a Credit Gone West habitué, Broken Glass lives on a daring regime of bicycle chicken – a Congolese term for skinny poultry – and litres of red wine. Never short of an idea to ensure his bar’s posterity, Stubborn Snail gives him the chance to chronicle the place’s daily adventures. When Broken Glass engages in conversations with the bar’s crazy fauna, he soon discovers the incredible narratives that have led these people to crash in this corridor to hell. There is the Pampers guy, who wears the ignominious nappies since he was abused in jail for having molested his daughter – a crime his former wife unfairly accused him of to keep their house. Then comes the Printer, who boasts “I did France” for he married a French woman and enjoyed a comfortable position at a prestigious Parisian printing works until he discovered his wife cheating on him with a son from a previous union.
The parade goes on with a piss contest between an obese, ferocious matron and a soft-mannered but disdainful dandy – the dandy winning against all odds by sketching a precise map of France in the dust with his jet. After several adventures of the like, Broken Glass turns to himself recalling how he used to be a respected intellectual before starting to consider the world through the lenses of a wine bottle. In spite of his wife’s tireless efforts to keep him on track – and despite a hilarious visit to the family’s traditional healer – he slowly but proudly becomes Credit Gone West‘s chief customer, abandoning his past prestige for a life of alcohol and freedom. He will ultimately detail his last adventure that, as the rest of the book, can be read as both a call of despair and a gamble on a better future.
Self delusion and self awareness are central themes in Mabanckou’s work. By patiently chronicling the tragicomedies surrounding him, Broken Glass testifies of life’s harshness when one is poor and has nothing but liquor and past dreams to escape his condition. But humour is never far with Mabanckou, and Broken Glass, with its inimitable prose can soothe the direst tragedies. The book does not count a single full stop, and uses hundreds of ready-made sentences quoted from titles of world literature’s master works. Ultimately, the author always hits the target whether mocking pretentious leaders, satirizing exploitative predicators, or just commenting on social life and the general lack of morals. Closing the book, one feels haunted by the ambiguous characters that fill this surreal story where laughter comes as a stimulant – or is it therapeutic?