The lomglist of France’s pre-eminent literary award, the Prix Goncourt, contained fifteen works in 2015, with two of those books now appearing on the Man Booker International Prize longlist in 2017. Mathias Enard’s “Compass’ (originally titled “Boussole” and now translated by Charlotte Mandell) eventually took out the award with “Black Moses” (originally titled “Petit Piment”, ‘Small Pepper”) making the final eight titles, however not the final four. The Prix Goncourt going through three selection processes before the winner is announced.
For interest sake, here are the four titles that made the final selection listing, Nathalie Azoulai “Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice”, Mathias Enard “Boussole”, Héde Kaddour “Les Prépondérants”, and Tobie Nathan “Ce pays qui te ressemble”. Maybe a few of these will make their way into English over the coming years!
Alain Mabanckou’s “Black Moses” takes place both in and not far from the coastal City of Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo, on the central west coast of Africa.
Our protagonist is an orphan, named “Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko” or “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors”, a name given to him by Papa Moupelo, the priest at the orphanage in Loango where he grows up.
The orphanage is ruled with an iron fist by the Director Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako, and once the country falls to a Socialist revolution the much-loved priest Papa Moupelo no longer arrives at the orphanage and his room is emptied, a sign being erected on the door;
MEETING HUT FOR THE NATIONAL
MOVEMENT OF PIONEERS OF THE SOCIALIST
REVOLUTION OF CONGO
Of course religion disappears, and the corruption begins, the nephews of the Director, on his father’s side are promoted, on his mother’s side left to their current jobs.
It does not fall to everyone to become a section leader of the Union of Socialist Youth of Congo. The government sifted through the applications carefully, taking account of the ethnic origin of the candidates. As the northerners were in power – in particular the Mbochis – the leaders of the USYC were also Mbochis, an ethnic group which represented a scant 3.5 per cent of the national population. In other words, Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako had had to fight to fix the appointment of his three nephews, who were not Mbochi from the north, but Bembé from the south. In fact he had only partly got what he wanted because although they accepted his request, the political leaders of the Kouilou region suggested he go halves: his nephews could be section leaders, but under the command of the two nothereners, Oyo Ngoki and Mokélé Mbembé, who in turn would be accountable to the national division at the annual congress in Brazzaville, to be attended by the President of the Republic himself. (pp26)
The story becomes a tale of propaganda, and censored histories and a potted history of Communist rule in Congo and Angola, through Moses reciting the President’s speeches or through his interactions with the adults in the orphanage;
Suddenly serious, she adjusts her glasses: ‘I am the fruit of that one-night encounter, during which my mother may have said nothing, since she spoke no Spanish, and my father kept silent too, as he spoke neither French not any one of the dozens of languages of our country. My father, I’m told, was tall, handsome, with light brown eyes. I get my light skin from him; when I was young I was both teased and envied for it. People made fun of it because you could see straight away I wasn’t as black as the Congolese girls, so I had to be a bastard, “a Cuban”, which meant my mother must have gone with some soldier either because she wanted to have a child who was less black, or because she was secretly working as a prostitute near the military camps on the border, but I favour the first possibility. Yes, she did want to have a child with lighter skin, because at the time that represented a kind of superiority, it was silly, but it was all part of the complex we had about white people, anything white was superior, everything black was doomed, with no future, no tomorrow, are you still with me, Moses my friend…?’ (pp64)
A book that is split equally into two sections, the orphanage to begin with and then the streets of Pointe-Noire to conclude, we follow “Black Moses (or “Little Pepper” if you prefer his other nickname and the original title) through a disadvantaged life. Note – there is a small closing section, however in order not to give away spoilers I will not give details here.
An enjoyable read this is a book filled with references to anti-heroes throughout literature;
Behind the twins and the Tékés, I noticed the silhouettes of the three strange men we called ‘The Three Mosquiteers’, because they draped themselves in mosquito nets from dawn to dusk, convinced that the mosquitoes of the Côte Sauvage were only targeting them.
The Three Mosquiteers? There were four of them actually, if you counted their accomplice, the one-legged stammerer, though he didn’t cover himself with a mosquito net like the others. Since his other leg was missing, the stammerer couldn’t use one of his arms to arrange the mosquito net as it was busy compensating for the absence of his left leg. If he had had the full complement of limbs, he’d have done as the other three Mosquiteers did. That was the evening I realised that we in fact had four Mosquiteers with us, and the fourth, the one-legged stammerer, the youngest and most hot-headed of them, was only fourteen years old… (pp117)
Even the street gangs are open to corruption; “Now I understood why they ‘worked’ less and less and had taken a bit of a bourgeois turn.” (pp137), this is not simply a political or emotionally difficult story, it is also a story littered with joyful, humorous anecdotes;
‘Little Pepper, I’ll be frank with you: I think you need help. Your situation isn’t just serious, it’s completely and utterly desperate…’
For years he would continue to sing this refrain, as my memory problems affected my gait and I started to walk in zigzags because it completely slipped my mind that the shortest route from one point to another is a straight line, which is why, as they say around here, drunkards always come home late.
Using a few details of the biblical Moses’ story, abandoned orphan, exile, and other references that could be spoilers, and mixed with the tale of Robin Hood, a renegade here working for the prostitutes of the east and the “poor”, and blended with a tale of a nation moving from French to Communist rule, this is a very readable novel. The downside being it is yet another African novel set in an orphanage, for some strange reason these seem to be the African works I come across when dabbling with translated works from that continent.
Through a coming-of-age story it is also a metaphor for the maturation of a nation, Black Moses’ story is playful, horrific, enjoyable and moving, all at the same time and it is also a story that contains a glimmer of hope.
Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? Given the lack of African representation in recent years it may garner a few sympathy votes, but I see it as one of the solid entries that is filling the middle of the pack, just a little short of lifting the main gong. Whilst I rate it highly on my list of longlisted books read to date, I feel it will fall short on the night the winner is announced. Only time will tell…