Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass

My review of Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass and African Psycho appears this weekend in The National. Here is the opening paragraph:

In Africa, when an old person dies, a library burns. When the Malian writer and ethnologist Amadou Hampâté Bâ uttered these words at a Unesco assembly in 1960, he was attempting to draw attention to Africa’s tradition of oral storytelling. Little did he know that his aphorism would turn into one of the most persistent clichés about the continent, one that unfortunately reinforced the erroneous idea that there was no tradition of written literature in Africa prior to European colonialism. Early on in Alain Mabanckou’s new novel Broken Glass (to be published this month in translation from French to English), the proprietor of a seedy bar in Brazzaville, who is referred to only as Stubborn Snail, hears the slogan and derisively responds that it “depends which old person, don’t talk crap, I only trust what’s written down.”

In fact, Stubborn Snail is so sure of the power of the written word that he gives a notebook to his most regular customer, an old schoolteacher nicknamed Broken Glass, and asks him to write his customers’ stories. Broken Glass takes up the challenge, though he quickly warns the reader that “I’m writing this for myself as well, that’s why I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when he reads these pages, I don’t intend to spare him or anyone else.” One suspects that Mabanckou shares these feelings, that he has no time for pious and well-meaning clichés about Africa, and that he intends to write as irreverently and as freely as he pleases.

You can read the entire piece here.