In a UCLA classroom one day not long ago, Alain Mabanckou was teaching a course in post-colonial African fiction, which he instructs in his French mother tongue, one of several languages he speaks.
With his easygoing yet focused manner, soccer player’s graceful body language and a way funkier fashion sense than the average college don, the 46-year-old Mabanckou kept his students’ attention, framing moral quandaries for them to consider and regaling them with technical explanations of an African army’s “technique de la terre brulee” (scorched earth policy).
His colleague Dominic Thomas, a UCLA professor and chair of the departments of French and Francophone Studies and Italian, said that Mabanckou, a native of the Republic of the Congo, has fit in well since arriving a few years ago from the University of Michigan.
“He’s not as constipated as a normal scholar,” Thomas said. “Alain has this more open spirit. I think students find that refreshing.”
That open spirit also can be found in Mabanckou’s novels, which bleed humor and ooze terror in quick, steady drips.
After years of delays, English translations of his novels, which are written in French, lately have started to appear in the United States, giving readers here a chance to savor the mordant comedy and biting social commentary of books like “Broken Glass” and “Memoirs of a Porcupine.”
Frequently, his books erupt in great Rabelaisian gusts of bawdy humor, like a wild animal’s howl in the night. Just as suddenly they quiet down to ponder wry philosophical questions about the wayward spiritual path of a youthful assassin or the quiet desperation of a Central African barfly.
But always, in the teeming savanna of Mabanckou’s imagination, loom existential issues of individual will and the capacity to act for good or evil, whether you’re black or white, man or beast.
“Everyone has a choice to do or not to do, and we are still struggling between our cultures and what we are doing in fact,” Mabanckou said over lunch at UCLA after his class.
“So my books are always like that, struggling between the fact that an individual is trying to carry the weight of the world, he’s trying to stand still, he’s trying to move forward, but he needs to make a lot of choices in order to fulfill his mission.”
As an artist, Mabanckou, who left the Congo when he was 20 and lived in France for several years, faces a difficult mission: to acquire a following among English-speaking readers to match the acclaim his fiction has generated in the Francophone world.
In his prize-winning fiction, Mabanckou dramatizes the violent upheavals and tragi-comically thwarted aspirations of a continent in transition, where warriors not old enough to shave are old enough to kill, ancient parables brim with generational wisdom, and old hatreds and imperialistic pathologies die hard. But in the United States such stories can be a tough sell.
It’s even trickier for a Francophone author like Mabanckou. Though U.S. bibliophiles may be familiar with English-language writers like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, such names as Leopold Sedar Senghor, from Senegal, and Aime Cesaire, from Martinique, are likely to produce head scratching.
Born in the capital of Brazzaville, directly across the Congo River from Kinshasa, capital of the much larger Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mabanckou grew up reading detective thrillers and other pulp fiction that his stepfather, a hotel clerk, would fish from bedroom wastebaskets, where the books had been tossed by French tourists.
At his public school in Congo, a former French colony that gained independence in 1960, all his teachers were white Europeans, so Mabanckou was exposed to reams of classic French literature.
“They didn’t teach us like African literature. They didn’t know anything about that,” said Mabanckou, who lives in Santa Monica. “So we were reading like Marcel Proust, Victor Hugo, Arthur Rimbaud and so on and so on.”
His family couldn’t afford to run a TV on the region’s limited electricity, “so that made me a reader.”
Colloquial and entertaining, Mabanckou’s novels fuse an erudite sensibility with the slangy cadences of the African diaspora, yoked to a suitably jaundiced view of life in the modern global village.
“African Psycho” (2003) recounts the first-person story of a would-be serial killer, whose crimes are no better but possibly no worse than those of the corrupt politicians and other sleazebags he encounters. In “Broken Glass” an expertly drawn cast of sad-sack characters recount their bizarre life stories through the perspective of a Congolese ex-teacher bent on drowning his own woes.
The darkly magical-realist “Memoirs of a Porcupine” (2006), ostensibly written by the animal avatar of a murderous Congolese village boy, won Mabanckou one of the most prestigious prizes in French letters, the Prix Renaudot, and led his work to be compared with the satires of Jean Genet.
“Whatever else might be in short supply in the Congo depicted by Alain Mabanckou, imagination and wit aren’t,” Tibor Fischer wrote in a 2009 review of “Broken Glass” for the Guardian of London.
But the parochial tastes and pinched profit margins of the U.S. publishing industry have restricted Mabanckou’s visibility on U.S. bookshelves. Only three of his books have been published in English in his adopted home.
“The problem of French literature is the problem of translation,” said Mabanckou, who’s also a poet. “In France we used to translate a lot of Anglophone work, but in the Anglophone world they don’t translate quickly something coming far from them.”
The difficulties are especially acute for French-language authors from ex-colonial countries like Vietnam, Cameroon, Chad and the Canadian province of Quebec, said UCLA’s Thomas. Since World War II, France’s haute literary establishment has been dominated by theorists and critics who cherish the cerebral experimental texts of bad-boy authors like Michel Houellebecq (‘”The Elementary Particles”) over more narrative fiction. French universities also give short shrift to French-language authors from outside France.
“The French system is extremely elitist and extremely closed” to writers like Mabanckou, Thomas said. “Even though they win major prizes they are marginalized and considered peripheral authors.”
Mabanckou worries that American readers are missing out on less voluble voices from many corners of the planet. New high-tech devices seem to pop up every day, but he fears that storytelling is an endangered species.
“We have already lost the tradition of storytelling because of the fact that the television is there. Why are people going to sit down and listen to someone? They’re going to buy a DVD or watch it on Netflix,” he said.
“But I think that by losing the tradition of storytelling we’re going to lose the fact that we need to respect the elders, we need to respect the old people, we need to be kind with people, and the sense of hospitality, to receive people. We are losing those things just because we are embracing the Western civilization. ... We’re losing maybe our mind in Africa, just because we think that everything should be like in the Western world.”