Readers of Alain Mabanckou’s previous novels, from Broken Glass to Memoirs of a Porcupine, know how his unmistakable style is made of drollery and sarcasm. In Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty (Serpent’s Tail, 2013), his latest novel to be published in English, the Franco-Congolese adds tenderness to his signature ironic tone. Through Michel, his young alter ego, Mabanckou mischievously recalls his childhood in the port-city of Pointe-Noire, on the Atlantic coast of Congo-Brazzaville. Michel is caught in a whirl of minor events he describes with touching candor: the hiccups in his love relationship with Caroline, the witch tricks of Ousmane the Senegalese shopkeeper, the unfairness of the teacher’s ranking system… But Michel is also concerned with the stories he hears through his father’s radio, from the exile of Iran’s Shah to the craze of Uganda’s Idi Amin. Domestic and historic events intermingle hilariously in Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty, offering a moving depiction of how it was like to grow up in Africa in the late seventies.
A Red Country
“My uncle says he’s a communist” Michel explains of Uncle René, his mother’s elder brother and self-styled family patriarch. “Usually communists are simple people, they don’t have television, telephone or electricity, hot water or air conditioning and they don’t change cars every six months like Uncle René. So now I know that you can also be communist and rich” he notes ingenuously. Michel lives in the People’s Republic of the Congo, a Soviet inspired “red country”. A child, he naturally adheres to the precepts he is taught but nevertheless questions some inconsistencies. “Generally speaking, an Immortal is someone like Spiderman, Blek le Roc, Tintin or Superman, who never dies. I don’t understand why we have to say that comrade president Marien Ngouabi is immortal, when everyone knows he’s dead.”
To great comical effect, Mabanckou uses the no-nonsense of children to revive the farcicality of Cold War in Africa. At school, everybody has to recite the President’s speeches by heart and learn how the country is the greatest of all. “I often say our country is really small, but you mustn’t say it in class or the teacher will get mad and beat you even though everyone can see on the map of Africa that our neighbor Zaire is one of the biggest countries on the whole continent.” A soft dictatorship, Congo teaches to its children how the world is divided between evil capitalists and good communists – even if no one except for Uncle René pays too much attention.
Learning To Love
Against this deliciously absurd political background, Michel is slowly coming of age. Deeply in love with Caroline, his best friend’s sister, he is terrible at expressing his feelings. “I didn’t answer. It was the first time I’d hear someone tell me ‘I love you’. And her voice was different, and she was looking at me, waiting for me to say something to her. What could I say? In the end, I said nothing.” Mistaking Michel’s awkwardness for disdain, Caroline soon starts flirting with Mabélé, a bully in the local football team. The young lover will have to be resourceful to keep Caroline’s flame alive.
Not everything is rosy on Michel’s parents’ side. Having lost two daughters before giving birth to her son, Maman Pauline craves for another child. Michel often asks his beloved Sister-Star and Sister-No-Name who sit in the sky to support Maman Pauline in her endeavor, but to no avail. Things get worse when a witch doctor convinces Michel’s mother that the cause of her infertility is her only son, who keeps the key to her womb hidden. Michel does not know what this key looks like, even though he will have to find it…
Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty is full of minor scenes that, put together, form a touching image of a young boy’s psyche. Watching the planes gliding in the sky guessing where they will land, secretly exploring his father’s library or gravely listening to important events of world news unfolding on the radio, Mabanckou follows Michel in his daily life and pulls his reader into the child’s disarming logic. By doing so, he paints a captivating portrait of Congolese society and shows Africa at its most genuine.