In Memoirs of a Porcupine, a hilarious novel, published in May 2011 by Serpent’s Tail, the Congo-Brazzaville-born author Alain Mabanckou brilliantly wraps the vibrant rhythm of the African oral tradition in a corrosive and sarcastic style. His pulsating, hard-headed writing – the book does not count a single full stop – mixed with a plot worthy of the best crime fiction results in a true “beat” that leaves its reader breathless and dazzled. Subtly mocking almost everything he can, from the lasting influence of custom in African societies to the allegedly emancipating European science, Mabanckou offers a metaphoric tale that gives food for thought – only once the last laugh has faded.
A caustic storyteller, and somewhat of a cynic philosopher too, a porcupine has found shelter between the roots of a Baobab. Frightened and distrustful, he nevertheless wants to talk. He begins his story by recalling that he is an animal, just an animal. “A wild beast” the humans would say – but the humans are stupid, for they believe only what they see… The rest quickly follows: his quiet early-life among his peers, the calling he felt for the then small and sweet boy Kibandi, the suspicious behaviour of the boy’s father until that night, fateful night when the old man took his son into the depths of the Congolese forest, forced him to drink the vile mayamvumbi potion and initiated him to the terrible custom of the animal wicked double.
From then, the helpless porcupine becomes Kibandi’s secret weapon. An obedient, if sometimes remorseful soldier, the animal double embarks in his master’s crime folly. Too skinny for a rural society where a strong body is a sign of wealth, barely communicative with other humans, more and more withdrawn and compulsively jealous, Kibandi has a lot to take revenge for. He uses his porcupine to violently – and very comically – settle his problems. Among many other victims, there will be Amédée, the local dandy wooing girls a bit too much with his delicate suits and refined conversation, or Moudiongui, the palm-wine maker who uses Kibandi’s addiction to his beverage to make indecent money.
Mabanckou clearly uses the arcane of local beliefs to emphasise a more general tendency to violence endemic in human nature. Kibandi is a self-doubting man plagued by a sense of inadequacy about his bony body and his awkward relations with other humans, whose inferiority complex has tragic repercussions for the people around him. On a more general ground, the author also questions the effects of the traditional beliefs on society. “What to think about a man who commits murder and then accuses a legendary double?” Mabanckou asked once. “Can we avoid our responsibilities by simply discharging ourselves on the custom?” With much humour and an acute sense of the narration, the book brilliantly raises the question – only to leave the answer to its reader.