THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

The lower depths

Set in a seedy Congo bar, a bawdy, post-modern satire

By Valerie Miner
July 11, 2010

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Alain Mabanckou’s river of consciousness novel, “Broken Glass,’’ examines the colonial heritage and current social (dis)order experienced by people in his native Congo.

Mabanckou, a high velocity, much vaunted author who has published five books of poetry and seven novels since 1995, teaches Francophone literature at UCLA. He sets this picaresque satire in a seedy bar, Credit Gone West, in the Trois-Cents district of Congo-Brazzaville and fills the stools with outsized characters like Broken Glass, Pampers, the Printer, Robinette, and Stubborn Snail.

Stubborn Snail, the publican of the 24-hour saloon, gives a notebook to his loyal patron Broken Glass, urging him to write “a book about us, a book about this place, there’s no other place like it on earth.’’ Broken Glass’s idiosyncratic chronicle of Credit Gone West and of his own life before settling there is rendered with a suitably gimlet eye.

A defeated, urbane school teacher, Broken Glass often invokes literary or cultural figures. Lest readers mistake Congo for a backwater, Mabanckou nods to Marcel Proust, Cato the Elder, Karl Marx, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, Frantz Fanon, Ernest Hemingway, André Brink, and Miles Davis. A character who calls himself Holden Caulfield makes a brief, befuddled appearance at the bar.

It’s difficult to characterize Mabanckou’s spirited, audacious writing without also name dropping. His style combines a wild mélange of Moliere’s edgy parody, Gertrude Stein’s breathless sentences, Salman Rushdie’s manic logorrhea, Ben Okri’s cultural ambivalence, and Gilbert Sorrentino’s postmodern wackiness. He displays these diverse impulses in a book that contains no periods, that is, in fact, one long sentence fragment.

“Broken Glass’’ reads like a twisted “Canterbury Tales’’ in which each pilgrim’s journey is a rapid alcoholic descent toward inner demons. One by one, Broken Glass considers his wretched neighbors for whom he sees no redemption, repair, or salvage. Whether naively hopeful or fatalistic, all are doomed, for Broken Glass agrees with Sartre that there is no exit.

Pampers is a pathetic man who, like his fellow patrons, has been kicked out by his wife. He calls the fire department to help him break into his house, but his wife wins the round, concocting a story about his incest with their daughter. Frequent brutal rapes he endured in prison have left him incontinent and forced to wear adult diapers — hence the nickname. Despite being irreparably physically and emotionally damaged, he still harbors the unlikely hope that one day he’ll “go and win my wife back, we’ll have a new romance.”

The Printer wants to enter the notebook with his own tale of betrayal. He mourns his successful career at the press of Paris Match and his lively French social life. One night in Pigalle, he meets a gorgeous white woman, Céline, and they fall in love. Despite repeated denials about his racism, he boasts about his nonblack neighborhood. He’s overjoyed when Céline gives birth to blue-eyed twins. One day his son from a previous liaison moves in, and eventually he realizes that he’s been cuckolded by his own son. “[T]he Printer reminds them that he used to be in charge of a team, with real whites in it, not the whites you see here, chewing manioc and drinking Beninese beer, but real French whites, and he stresses that they were the people who printed Paris Match, and I thought to myself, this guy’s a real weirdo, it’s about time he changed the record.’’

Like all the bar patrons, Broken Glass is captivated by a marathon urinating contest between Robinette, a plump, likeable prostitute, and Casimir, a dapper, mysterious man. Part Chaucer, part Rabelais, the competition features detailed descriptions of the rivals’ comically exaggerated anatomy, along with a soundtrack that includes a whistled baroque concerto punctuated by bursts of flatulence.

The most interesting story here, of course, is about the storyteller. Broken Glass’s life is shattered by his parents’ deaths. An uncle kills his father for palm tapping tools. His mother commits suicide in the River Tchinouka, an event that haunts and beguiles her son. Broken Glass undermines his teaching career with bizarre classroom behavior, and he rebuffs the punitive reassignment to a bush school. At this point, his exasperated wife metamorphoses from Angelica to “Diabolica,’’ and he takes up residence in the bar. The lure of the River Tchinouka becomes stronger and stronger.

Mabanckou, a keen metafictionist, lingers on Broken Glass’s literary introspections: “[I]t makes me smile when I read through some of the pages, they go back quite a way now, I wonder whether deep down I should be proud of it, I reread a few lines and mostly it frustrates me . . . I’m beginning to wonder whether this isn’t my will I’m writing.’’

Stubborn Snail is less ambivalent: “[I]t’s a real mess, this book, there are no full stops, only commas and more commas, sometimes speech marks when someone’s talking, that’s not right, I think you should tidy it up a bit, don’t you, how am I supposed to read all that, if it’s all run together like that . . . I really expected better of you.’’

Our literary nerd Broken Glass becomes as intoxicated by words as he is by his red wine. Mabanckou’s erudite virtuoso performance is a sardonic exposé of imperialism, post-colonial corruption, internalized racism, and provincialism. This impressive book will delight readers amused by cerebral acrobatics and may disappoint those more interested in nuanced character development, or compelling, emotionally resonant narrative.

Valerie Miner is the author of 13 books including her new novel, “After Eden.’’ She teaches at Stanford University and can be reached through her website, www.valerieminer.com.

BROKEN GLASS By Alain Mabanckou

Soft Skull, 165 pp., paperback, $13.95