A Challenging Story that Usurps Convention

'Memoirs of a Porcupine'

by David Maine

22 July 2012

Unconventional fiction from a rising African star.
cover art

Memoirs of a Porcupine

Alain Mabanckou

(Soft Skull Press)
US: Apr 2012

this book, it’s written in a very distinctive style, maybe I’ll write my review the same way, there are no periods or capital letters or any punctuation really except for commas, you read this review you’ll get an idea of how the rhythm flows, sure it’s an easy style to parody, it’s up to the reader to decide whether it’s engaging and interesting or just incredibly annoying, after all in order to justify such a break with expected norms there needs to be a substantial thematic or even narrative payoff, maybe that’s not the case here, it’s up to you, some people will like it some won’t

the author Alain Mabanckou is from the Congo, he’s written some well-received books like African Psycho and Broken Glass, his work is well known in France but at the moment he lives and teaches in LA, this might be the first introduction some American readers have to his work, say what you will about it, this is certainly a unique book

the story focuses on a porcupine who is the spiritual guide or double or servant of a boy named Kibandi, he is a village boy whose father was something of a villain and now Kibandi is following in his footsteps, at age ten he undergoes a ritual by which the porcupine is bound to him and must carry out his wishes, which are generally of the murderous kind, this storyline plays off of traditional African village beliefs or such is the suggestion in the book anyway, when a person dies it is often seen as the result of malicious forces and there is a rich tradition of supernatural explanations as to how those forces work, and why

really though the storyline here is almost inconsequential, the characters are barely delineated, there is Kabandi and his mother and father and a few of his victims, but hardly anyone is on the page long enough to register in traditional terms of personality or motivation, the only real character here is the porcupine, he remains nameless until the very end of the book as he sits at the foot of the baobab tree relating his story, all of the events and characters are filtered through his consciousness, which is marked by his animal-ness if you will, sometimes this is amusing but often it undermines the reader’s expectations, big surprise there right

so then what we have here is a very “voicey” story indeed, one which is often exhausting in its relentless adherence to a nonstandard, nonlinear form of storytelling, especially as the narrator is wont to go wandering off on any number of tangents, ths is especially true early on in the book, which makes it more than a little difficult to engage with the flow of the story

what’s interesting though is that at a certain point somewhere in the second half of the book, which isn’t that long though it feels longer, the narrative begins to gain some pace, this happens once the porcupine’s rather meandering background story is dispensed with and we get on with the business of Kibandi and his porcupine and their nefarious deeds and the fallout that accompanies them, some of these episodes are quite chilling, and the insouciant tone of the murderous narrator only adds to the effect

we are also in the presence of a mightily lyrical porcupine, one whose descriptive abilities are impressive, as for example “…the smell of the rotting corpse got so bad in the room they had to leave the doors and windows open for thirty days and thirty nights, it only cleared the day the old lady died, a grey Monday, a Monday when even the flies couldn’t get off the ground, Séképembé seemed empty, the sky so low a human could almost have plucked a cluster of clouds without even raising his arm…” and so forth, I’ll end the quote there, if I waited for the sentence to end then this review would be as long as the book and even then there would be no period

here’s another nice bit, “not a day of his life went by without my master thinking of the night his father sold on his destiny to us, visions of the initiation haunted him, he was back in Mossaka, aged ten, a night full of terrors, of flying bats, when Papa Kibandi woke him without a word to his mother, and dragged him off into the forest, and even before he left the house, little Kibandi witnessed something so incredible, he had to rub his eyes several times…” and so on

so you see, this book is really something, but whether it’s something great or just greatly annoying must be left up the reader to decide, for my part, it’s the kind of book I respect more than enjoy, its self-consciousness holds the reader at arm’s length, one never forgets that one is reading a book, a fictional representation of another creature’s experience, disbelief is never entirely suspended, that’s not really my favorite way of approaching a novel, but variety of experience is why we keep listening to and reading stories, if they were all the same than what would be the point

Memoirs of a Porcupine


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