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Alain Mabanckou, a rebel in laughter

His exuberant and refractory prose makes of Congo-Brazzaville-born Alain Mabanckou somewhat of a phenomenon in France. With nine novels, several volumes of poetry and a bundle of literary prizes to his name, he still appears as the gifted young talent whose derisive drollery has kept the freshness of the underdogs. For Mabanckou is a subversive, both by the themes he picks and the style he cultivates. As the author prepares to attend the next Open Book Cape Town literary festival, it is time to give ear to one of Africa's most original voice.

A matter of style

The buzz quickly spread in Paris when Alain Mabanckou's last novel Demain, j'aurai 20 ans (“Tomorrow I'll be 20”, soon to be translated in English) was first published in August 2010. The book appeared on the shelves with the distinctive cream cover of Gallimard's “La Blanche” collection – a trademark of French literary excellence with the likes of Marcel Proust, Albert Camus or J. M. G. Le Clézio in its catalogue. The honour was actually more a sign of the French literary establishment's slow embrace of Francophone diversity than Mabanckou's renouncement of his caustic principles. Being the first writer from Francophone black Africa to be admitted in La Blanche’s exclusive club, the author remains delighted at breaching the rules of French.

Mabanckou has always been experimenting with the language he first learnt at school at the age of six. Maliciously comparing it to a “river to be diverted”, he sometimes tortures syntax by avoiding full stops or renews the vocabulary corpus when mixing classical elegance with ready-made phrases inspired by the titles of books he loves and the worst Congolese slang. The result is a true “beat”, something of a free-wheeling, punch-in-the-face style that often leaves its readers breathless and dazzled.

Iconoclasm as leitmotiv

As for his style, Alain Mabanckou's themes are often daring, sometimes impertinent and always very funny. Miles away from Afro-pessimist moaning clichés, his novels and poetry evoke a vibrant – if not freaky at times – Africa: a place where people live, love and laugh like everywhere else, a place where some also drink too much bad liquor or elaborate hilarious plots to eliminate the people they want to see dead. But Mabanckou's frequent use of ancestral fables has no exotic purpose. He always tries to question contemporary Africa when evoking its oral tradition.

In “Memoirs of a Porcupine”, for which the author was awarded the prestigious Prix Renaudot in 2006, there is this story of the illiterate sinner-man Kibandi who uses his legendary double, a porcupine, to kill those he is jealous of. When forced to face the consequences of his acts, Kibandi pretends that he cannot be liable for the murders committed by the animal. Aware that the African psyche is shaped by its myths, Mabanckou wished to explore the deep effects traditional beliefs can have on contemporary societies. “Can we avoid our responsibilities by simply discharging ourselves on the custom?” he asked acutely.

Proudly bearing his African identity, the author aims to examine the pleas suffered by his continent with lucidity and does not fear controversy. He refuses above all the temptation of polarisation between cultures. Quoting the great anti-colonialist thinker Frantz Fanon, he reminded once that "the danger for the black writer is to stay locked in his "darkness". We have to avoid the trap of basic confrontation between black and white civilizations. Self-critic is essential if we want to have a fair look at the world." By offering a lucid, lively image of Africa and by giving French its full global potential, Alain Mabanckou's work luminously illustrates this statement.

Hadrien Diez

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