I felt like I was reading another Catcher in the Rye as Alain took me through the life of Michel, a young Congolese boy struggling to come into terms with the political struggle (post-colonial) and capitalist state in his country. As he hopes for freedom his ideology of different philosophers like Karl Marx, Engels, and Victor Hugo amazes a reader as to how well he knows his stuff. Been an only child, he comes to terms with reality as his father abandoned him at birth and the navigation into another family where Maman Pauline, his mother, becomes a second wife to Papa Roger. He hopes that his mother will find the keys to her belly to have more children due to the numerous miscarriages she has undergone making him miss his sisters, Star and No Name or according to papa Roger “reason children turn up in your mother’s womb but don’t make it out into the world is because they get lost somewhere along the way.” The element of family inheritance arises too as to who is to inherit their grandfather’s property.
He fights for the love of his life Caroline by trying to impress her with his father’s books and poems. One cannot also help but laugh at his naughtiness and humor that a takes a reader on a roller coaster to their childhood. For instances: mirror game where boys would put mirrors on the ground while girls were playing just to see the color of their pants, been squeezed up in desks at school leading to copying each other’s work and ended up replicating wrong information, sitting in class in rows by order of intelligence and you would wonder what was the point of going to school when there was that know-it-all pupil who always wanted to answer questions, students peeing on themselves after been punished by the teacher….the way he illustrates all this and more you going to laugh like a jackal.
An Afterword by J. M. G. Le Clezio speaks out in depth as to what this book entails:
“Alain Mabanckou shows us his world through the naive, observant eyes of a child, and what is both captivating and moving is the child’s take on the follies and contradictions of every aspect of post-colonial society, as seen through the prism of the immediate family circle: rampant capitalism dressed in the faded finery of the Marxist struggle, the greed of the moralizing rich, absurd nostalgia for the myth of the Wretched of the Earth. And Congo-Brazzaville itself, which appears variously as Vietongo, with its capital Mapapouville, the Trois-Cents district in Broken Glass, Pointe-Noire, as described by the garrulous Moki, or even, in Memoirs of a Porcupine, as a well-watered land, home to the baobab trees so dear to Saint-Exupéry.
The story of Michel, the young hero of Mabanckou’s novel, has nothing very unusual about it – just the discovery of life, the upsets and emotions, the tricks and traps which prepare a child to take its place in the adult word. His discoveries are not specifically Congolese, nor even African, though perhaps the hybrid nature of the society he lives in opens his eyes sooner rather than later. He discovers what adults are really like – often selfish and immature, unfailingly pathetic. Like children the world over – remember the fierce look of the small girl watching her parents rip each other apart in a novel by Colette – young Michel must find a place for himself, amid meanness, laughter and despair. Only youth can wipe away the hurt of the past and ward off future danger.”
PS: Just like I struggled with Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye with high, low, high, low chapters that I literally dozed off, the feeling was mutual in this one. Or else how do you explain the graph below?