Book review: Black Moses, by Alain Mabanckou

Alain Mabanckou PIC: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
Alain Mabanckou PIC: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
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There are very few novels indeed of which I might think “this should have been longer”, but this work by Man Booker International longlisted author and Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, Alain Mabanckou, is one of them. Its individual excellences are undermined by its structural failings. Translated by Helen Stevenson, its French title was Petit Piment – “Little Pepper”. The English language title is taken from the first page, which in itself is about translating: our protagonist is given the name “Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami ya Bakako”; meaning “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors”. A priest, who attends the local orphanage and school, baptises him thus. Later in the book he will wonder if the priest ever gave anyone a longer and more prestigious name. By the end, he is almost anonymous.

Black Moses reads like a Congolese rewriting and reimagining of Dickens. Young Moses begins the narrative in the orphanage-cum-school in Loango, where the kindly priest and the careful nurse both depart from his life during the communist revolution, exacerbated by local ethnic grievances. The school is basically Dotheboys Hall from Nicholas Nickleby, a place of casual brutality, endemic nepotism and sadistic pranks. Moses makes a name for himself by putting chilli pepper – hence his later nickname – into the food of two bullies. This actually makes them respect him.

Eventually, the two bullies and our hero escape the school for Pointe-Noire, and the book morphs into a kind of Oliver Twist. Their gang fights with other gangs, and Moses becomes the protégé of a brothel Madame known as Maman Fiat 500. But just as the school had been terrorised by Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako and his family, the city is languishing under the corrupt regime of François Makélé. The mayor begins by targeting the street urchins, and then turns his attentions to the prostitutes, because they, like the priest of the central character’s childhood, are mostly from neighbouring Zaire. The final third is a more phantasmagorical affair, as Moses has, after one of the mayor’s purges, become an alcoholic. He drinks beers and palm-wine – perhaps a nod to Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard – dresses like Robin Hood and plots a psychotic revenge. We know from the outset he is writing this account of his life from a cell. The question is who, of the many people who have betrayed and let down Moses, might be the target of his justifiable anger?

The novel is an example of the picaresque, a form, according to Sir Walter Scott, in which incidents are linked like pearls on a thread. Scott also identified the form’s weakness: characters drift in and out and need never be part of the resolution. So it is here: the fates of school friends and repellent teachers, then local toughs and big-hearted prostitutes, then the vague psychiatrists and fraudulent shamans are never returned to; they are hiatuses in the narrative. Individually, many of these scenes are wonderful. Together, they are less than the sum of their parts.

There is also a strange obsession with nomenclature. There is an obvious irony in the headmaster’s given name being “Dieudonné” – “God given” – but how can the book unpack all the African names in the way the narrator does on the opening pages? We are told that when he works in the brothel, the women are called “Féfé “Rear entry guaranteed” Massika, Lucie “Volcano Fire” Lembé, Kimpa “Magic caress” Lokwa, Georgette “5 am Nutella” Loubondo, Jeanne “Crumbly biscuit” Lobolo, Léonara “Instant decapsulation” Dikamona, Colette “Venus de Milo” Wawa, Kathy “Midnight Tornado” Mobebisi, Pierrette “Eleventh Commandment” Songa, and Mado “Spaghetti waist” Poati.” There is evidently a level of linguistic gamesmanship going on – the tmesis of the nicknames, with their European connotations – but I read it wondering if there was something I was simply missing. The names do not come up again. Why are they there then? It is not an isolated example.

The structural problem is the length of the novel: 199 pages. Part of this is the contemporary fashion in French publishing – think of the books by Marie Darrieussecq, Amélie Nothomb, the early Michel Houellebecq. None have written a tome the size of Nicholas Nickelby. But this has put aesthetic outcomes on market conditions. We are told that Moses is firstly a pious child, then an urban tearaway, then a murderous lunatic. We see the changes, but there is not time to describe the changing. It is the old problem of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Yes, the old miser becomes a caring surrogate father, but he does so in the gap between the chapters. It is so here, in triplicate.

Mabanckou is a fascinating writer in many ways – I’d recommend African Psycho to anyone, and his memoirish Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty – but this seems a misfire. It is dedicated to many people but “above all to ‘Little Pepper’, whose great wish was to be a character in fiction, since he’d had enough of being one in real life”. It’s a nod, I presume, to Don Quixote. But it took several hundred more pages to show how unreality might be preferable, how tyranny was everywhere and why kindness matters so much.

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, Serpent’s Tail, £12.99