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Black Moses: A Novel Hardcover – June 6, 2017
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"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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From School Library Journal
Black Moses, the protagonist of this novel set in the 1970s and 1980s, was raised in an orphanage in Congo-Brazzaville, during a time of political upheaval. He and his best friend, Bonaventure, weather the changes the orphanage goes through as the director tries to align himself with the current political regime. Black Moses eventually runs away from the orphanage with twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala to Pointe-Noire, where he becomes part of their gang. Later he takes refuge with Madame Fiat 500, the madame of a brothel, who helps him secure a house and job. However, mental illness takes its toll, and eventually, Black Moses finds himself in an institute built on the site of the old orphanage, and in the company of Bonaventure again. Slowly, his world becomes a jumble of past and present as he attempts to define his future. With well-crafted characters, this beautifully written, stark depiction of marginalized youth also highlights the stigma that people with mental ill face. VERDICT For sophisticated readers, especially fans of Natalie C. Anderson's City of Saints & Thieves.—Tamara Saarinen, Pierce County Library System, WA
One of The New York Times 10 French Novels to Read Now
Longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize
Longlisted for the PEN America Translation Prize
Shortlisted for the Albertine Prize
Included in World Literature Today’s 75 Notable Translations of 2017”
Long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize
"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
"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
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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.
Living in the big city, Black Moses befriends Maman Fiat 500, the Madame of a seraglio inhabited by young odalisques and he becomes their helper and “door man,” so to speak. At this point, where Mamam Fiat 500 mentors Black Moses, I thought the novel was taking a sentimental turn, showing the love a younger protégé has for his mentor such as in the beloved 1988 movie Cinema Paradiso. But sneaking up on me, the novel descended into darkness and presented a moral problem that I was not expecting. With a deft touch, immaculate prose, and a compelling narrative, Alain’s Mabanckou’s novel is well worth recommending.
The development of the character was slow, slow enough that I put this book down for over a month before returning to it. The main characters childhood was developed in broad anectdotes that did slowly come together, but it did read slowly at the beginning. The book definitely sped up after he snuck out of the orphanage and started living on the streets of Point Noire. In fact I was starting to get into his progress when inexplicably suddenly, he was struck by brain lesions and the book careened in a new direction. Perhaps true to life, but as I was waiting for the character to live up to his fated name of Black Moses, his whole life is thrown into confusion and weirdness. Perhaps this section provided the best humor and tension as I hoped for a cure though.
In the end I came away thinking it was good to read, although I have a history of studying the region so I appreciated a lot of the book that someone new to west central Africa would not. I'm glad I read it, but I don't know how long it will stick with me. I will say this, hoping not to be a spoiler, The very end twist struck me as very strong. Up until the last page I think I was sitting on a three star rating.