Monday, August 28, 2017

A Prophet Without Honor

Alain Mabanckou, Black Moses: a Novel

An orphan comes to a Congolese hospital wholly anonymous. The local priest saddles him with a name so lengthy, everyone calls him by a shortened version: Black Moses. Old Papa Moupelo apparently believes, with all seriousness, he’s discovered the prophet to deliver Congo-Brazzaville from tyrants and colonialists. But Marxist-Leninist revolution strikes Congo, religion is banned, and this becomes just the first time Moses gets thrown back on his own devices. Which he mostly doesn’t have.

Francophone author Alain Mabanckou proffers a novel guaranteed to frustrate most English-speaking audiences. Readers reared on American fiction will find many frustrations: Mabanckou introduces multiple plot threads which go unresolved. Characters antagonize Moses to the brink of outrage, then disappear. Our protagonist doesn’t act upon the story, but is strictly acted upon. Which is a common thread running through much post-colonialist literature, but Euro-American readers, unfamiliar with this tradition, may mistake Moses’ confusion for passivity.

Moses’ story begins inside the orphanage in Loango. First built by Catholics, it became a government institution upon Congolese independence. Black Moses enjoys Papa Moupelo’s lessons in religion and folk tradition, but questions his heritage. Then revolution strikes, priests are banned, and the orphanage becomes a reform school. Bullying twins take Moses under their wing when he resists their dominion over the boys’ dorm… but their mentoring proves equally damaging as the bureaucratic appointee director.

In the second half, the twins convince Moses to escape with them. Working together, the trio seize control of the juvenile gangs roaming Pointe-Noire, Congo’s richest city. But the twins demonstrate a “four legs good” attitude toward their gang, emulating the capitalists who keep them down. Moses flees to the shelter of a nearby brothel, working as the madam’s right-hand man. He graduates to keeping her property, until a purge of prostitutes challenges Moses’ loyalties.

Alain Mabanckou
If this sounds choppy and very busy, I won’t disagree. It’s necessary to resist the temptation to analyze this book by Western standards. Dust jacket blurbs comparing this novel to Dickens’ Oliver Twist could mislead Brit-Lit majors into seeking Anglophonic parallels. That would be incorrect. Mabanckou creates a character who drifts, rudderless, into the most important social upheavals of his people’s history, repeatedly witnessing shocking moments of widespread national tragedy, without understanding what he’s seeing.

Mabanckou does something fairly unusual in literary fiction, providing a thesis statement. Describing trapping feral cats for meat in Pointe-Noire, Moses ruefully describes the animals’ inability to understand their situation: “they have chosen to stay domestic, rather than go and live in the bush, where they could live with their feet up, away from the Bemb├ęs. Now, cats don’t know that true freedom is to be found in the wild.” Moses apparently misses the irony.

Like those cats, Moses doesn’t realize he has options. He vacillates between being somebody’s pet—the orphanage director, the mercurial madam, the witch doctor curing his “madness”—and being grist chewed up and consumed by others—the twins, the dockyards where the madam eventually dumps him, and… well… worse. He never sees the third option of rejecting the roles written for him, going wild, and charting his own course. Eventually he ends at the beginning.

I admit, I missed this message until Mabanckou spelled it out for me on page 114. Before that, I thought I was witnessing a passive character drifting helplessly, refusing to take responsibility for his own actions. Once Mabanckou offered his thesis statement, and I recognized how this story fitted into a tradition previously utilized by authors like Salman Rushdie and Sara Suleri, things came together for me. Moses’ helplessness wasn’t accidental, it was the point.

But I question whether audiences unfamiliar with postcolonial literature will recognize this message. Euro-American audiences expect through-lines, they expect plots commenced to be resolved, they expect protagonists to advance or be destroyed. Moses doesn’t do that, because that isn’t Mabanckou’s point. I enjoyed this book, flaws and all, because I recognized the literary conversation Mabanckou joins. I struggle to imagine other audiences, lacking my backlog of post-imperialist reading, will understand just what Mabanckou has accomplished.

Which is a shame, because, from within its context, Mabanckou lends a remarkable voice to the postcolonial conversation. Like many English-speaking readers, I’m familiar with Anglophone writers like Salman Rushdie and J.M. Coetzee; it’s interesting to see the how the context looks from the Francophone angle. Mabanckou probably alienates audiences unfamiliar with his milieu. But once I understood where he fits within the postcolonial discussion, I realized Mabanckou had written a smart, often funny contribution.

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