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Black Moses: A Novel Hardcover – June 6, 2017
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"Mabanckou populates his tale with a range of colorful supporting characters who tell the narrator their stories ― mixtures of truth and lie, of history and mythology and wishful thinking ― and these voices imbue the novel’s relative brevity with a surprising polyphonic texture."
―San Francisco Chronicle
"The story’s unflinching tone and sly humor belie the tragedy of Moses’s situation, as well as the cruelty of the people he meets."
―The New Yorker
"An orphan story with biting humor. . . as pointed as it is funny."
―Los Angeles Times
"Heartbreaking . . . Black Moses abounds with moments of black humor but the levity is balanced by Mabanckou's portrait of a dysfunctional society rent by corruption."
―New York Times Book Review
"[Black Moses] rings with a beautiful poetry."
―Wall Street Journal
"One of the most compelling books you'll read in any language this year."
"Moses comes of age quickly in this offbeat bildungsroman. . ."
"Vivid and funny."
―New York Magazine
One of the top 20 books to read this summer from O, The Oprah Magazine
"A small book with a big narrative voice, this wacky new novel by Mabanckou follows the existential misfortunes of an orphan . . . This mythic, beguiling novel is a journey to discover what is hard-wired in us and what we make up about ourselves."
―Publishers Weekly (starred)
"Funny and sharply satiric...Mabanckou has created a vibrant world in which Pointe-Noir has taken on the stature of an African Yoknapatawpha County."
"This tightly contained, densely packed story issues a challenge that never loses its urgency: how does a person cling to a sense of autonomy when it's under siege by so many powerful forces?"
―Kirkus Reviews (starred)
Praise for the French edition:
"A delicious and delicate novel."
― Le Monde
"From the first sentence there is an ease and spirit, and you know instantly that this story is authentic. Alain Mabanckou has a gift."
― Le Figaro Littéraire
"A wonderful urban tale."
― Le Magazine Littéraire
"Tasty but light to begin with, then quickly built and powerful, ultimately shattering."
"He wields a sweet and fleshy tongue."
― La Vie
Praise for Alain Mabanckou's The Lights of Pointe-Noire:
"In lyrical and disarmingly serene prose, the author evokes shock, wonder, and sometimes dismay as he searches for his past...A tender, poetic chronicle of an exile's return."
"This is a beautiful book, the past hauntingly reentered, the present truthfully faced, and the translation rises gorgeously to the challenge."
"Alain Mabanckou's joyous, vivid narrative style brings to life a frank, tender memoir."
― The Independent
"The author's real achievement is to capture a universal experience, one ever more common in the age of mass migration: what it means to come home after a long absence...Few books about Africa will find it easier to attract readers far away."
― The Economist
About the Author
Top customer reviews
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.
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 Bembés. 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.
The central character, the Moses of the title, is an orphan living in an orphanage run by a political appointee who takes over after the members of the religious order that had founded the orphanage have been, in various ways, sidelined and then "disappeared." The orphanage is at first seen as a place of bullying, loneliness, frequent abuse, and little that could be seen as positive. The Director IS a self-centered and ambitious politician with no sense of the needs or values of running an orphanage, and so allows various favorites to take charge and mistreat the orphans while plundering the resources of the institution. The narrator finally escapes and goes to a nearby city, Pointe-Noire, where he becomes a homeless vagabond who more or less joins in with a gang, but later finds ways to live on his own. His adventures and his apparent descent into madness (whether the result of physical abuse, malnutrition, poisoning, or a combination of them all is not entirely clear), and the attempts to restore him to health and sanity are variously unsuccessful, so that the final sections of the novel give us the self-narrative of a man who is almost certainly living a delusional and drunken existence. That all this may have an allegorical statement about the nature of life under dictatorships of fear and plunder may well be true.
The difficulty is that much of the narrative reminds us of other stories--sometimes explicitly, as when the narrator costumes himself as Robin Hood, but the point of the variants on traditional tales is not particularly clear. And sadly, whether it is a function of a faulty translation or the author's own approach, the novel is often downright tedious, sometimes confusing, and while it seems to intend to offer a cautionary tale about the dangers of living under the rule of tyrants and their lackeys, the point is generalized and not new.
I tried hard to like and celebrate this novel, including reading it twice before venturing to review it, but finally I think it is not a successful novel, not a sufficiently pointed satire, and not really a picaresque, though it gestures in that direction. Comparisons with Candide and other such satirical coming-of-age satires would only emphasize the defects of this work. It is short and can be quickly read, but maybe is not worth the time.
Have I frightened you off yet? Hopefully not, because this is a surprisingly accessible book. Our feisty protagonist, Moses, left at an orphanage age 13, when he sets out with the twin “bad boys”, Songi-Songi and Tali-Tali, is sort of a coming-of-age story and sort of a romp through Congo-Brazzaville and Zaire upheavals. Throughout this romp, colorful characters emerge: the octogenarian embalmer, for example, whose proclivities are a little…ummm…slanted, the secretive cleaning woman with a Cuban solider father and a surprising past, the madam of a house of ill repute, the kindly orphanage priest who vanishes one day, and, of course, scores of corrupt politicians.
There is laughter here, overlaying years of grief and disillusionment, and there is courage that emerges from so much loss – of fathers and mothers, father and mother substitutes, friendships, and temporary sanctuaries. My lack of historical knowledge of the region meant that certain allusions sailed over my head, but having said that, the book stands on its own, a Dickens-like tale of an orphan and the adventures that none of us should ever be forced to endure.