Broken Glass is a derelict who drinks at a bar called Credit Gone West in the Trois-Cents district of the DR Congo. As a disgraced school teacher and unrepentant drunk, he is an unconventional narrator, the kind we might find in Camus novels. The words you are reading, he explains, are jottings made in a notebook given to him by the bar’s proprietor, Stubborn Snail, intended to leave some kind of legacy for Credit Gone West. For Stubborn Snail, all talk about Africa’s oral heritage is worn out and reality too motley for neat phrases: "this is the age of the written word, that’s all that’s left now, the spoken word’s just black smoke". Mabanckou’s novel explores the space between. In describing the events of this dive and through confessions of its resident barflies, Broken Glass’ notebook becomes a suitably messy dissertation on two themes: how scoundrels justify themselves through the stories they tell and the wider interplay of African literature within its alleged oral purity and colonization by the French.
Early on, Broken Glass recounts a preposterous anecdote about how the opening of Credit Gone West provoked a governmental crisis, the crux of which is a battle for the pithiest slogan to win over the people. As the President’s advisors race to find him a suitably historic phrase, it is a good excuse for Mabanckou to trample on the great quotes of history, exactly the kind that Stubborn Snail is tired of. "Shakespeare said ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, and the chief negro said ‘no, no good, we’ve got past wondering whether we are or whether we aren’t, we’ve already settled that one, we’ve been in power here for twenty-three years, next!’" This kind of verbal slapstick is typical of Mabanckou’s irreverence. When the President finally gets what he wants, his quote ends up as the butt of a joke.
Similarly, each local lush approaches Broken Glass to give account, as if narrating their hard-luck stories for his book will dignify such miserable lives. Each insists on their singularity despite interchangeable catastrophes, and each has someone to blame for their misfortune. Luckily, Mabanckou has the grotesque imagination to create characters like the Pampers guy, who comes to the bar wearing nappies, and the Printer, who brandishes a copy of Paris-Match as if he were its proud editor. By telling their stories, they associate themselves with success that was only ever anecdotal. It is a verbal climb up the social ladder, wordy airs and graces to pretty up the truth. All dialogue is reported, filtered and absorbed into the relentless stream of the narrator, who is not shy about offering his opinions. As such, the novel sustains an ambiguity between the written and the oral. Everybody, Mabanckou implies, is an unreliable narrator. It comes with the territory. He even has Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye turn up, mumbling his outdated adolescent crap. Ripped out of context, Broken Glass doesn’t have much time for him.
Broken Glass himself is a reader of books but not a writer, and something of a lazy narrator, disguising what pleasure he derives in case Stubborn Snail starts to bully him into writing more. This allows Mabanckou to take enormous liberties with style and get away with things that ‘good’ writing does not do. The notebook form is rendered as one long sentence, organized with breaks and white spaces. There are no full stops, capital letters are rarely used and sometimes a single sentence flows on for pages. It grants Mabanckou a flexibility of rhythm and focus and gives the novel enormous energy. A single anecdote can pour out in a torrent or a section can flit between subjects without a breath. The style is restless.
Broken Glass is one of those novels where the original can be glimpsed beneath the translation. I suspect the frisson created by French with Congolese speech patterns has lost some of its impact in the jump to Helen Stevenson’s English. As Laila Lalami explains in her excellent insider’s comparison of the two, Mabanckou’s puns are very specific. It must be fiendisly difficult to translate such specific post-colonial collisions. African literature has moved on from a simple ‘them and us’ binary in terms of their former French occupiers. These characters have been forged within such messy contexts. Most of them express distain for other blacks. "I’m no racist," the Printer says before talking about his white wife in Paris and their suburban life "well away from the negroes". ‘Independence’ is another worn-out concept for Stubborn Snail to mistrust. The losers of Credit Gone West still ingratiate themselves with a bourgeois existence that has spat them out and dumped them back as drunks. Similar to Brel’s Jacky, they would sell out repeatedly in exchange for the briefest glimpse of a shabby glory.
Aside from its idiosyncratic punctuation, the most startling thing about Broken Glass is its literary punning. The novel is a torrent of gags about French literature. Mabanckou refers to it as a kind of love letter to the writing that shaped his own. However, this intertextual torrent is something of a wind up, giving its narrator a kind of literary Tourette’s, as if he’s spent too many drunken years engaged with books he doesn’t remember correctly. You can play spot the allusion but it gives no insight. As such, all the carefully constructed masterpieces of literature are submerged into the character’s monologue. They’re quick laughs for us and give no barrier against the chaotic, shitty forces we live by: "this jumble of words," writes Broken Glass at one point, "is life". The novel makes a break from literary decorum and revels in its bad behaviour. It’s irreverence recalls Céline (Mabanckou duly introduces a character with the same name) and Rabelais (a pissing contest is a clear tribute).
The novel is fluid and any stability we might expect from literature is unmoored. Any aspiration to dignity (or bourgois respectability) are scrambled by chaos and failure. This is what gives Broken Glass its energy and life. Its use of language is liquid, both an endless stream of wine and the drunken delirium it inspires. The novel has a looming, zooming, unhinged perspective. It staggers and lurches. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that Mabanckou is a fan of Tutuola. But this liquid also resembles a river and the waters of the Tchinouka have a special significance for the central character, as if everything flows towards them. Reality itself never stops this churning and flowing. At one point, Broken Glass calls the French language "a river to be diverted".
Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Alain Mabanckou is now in his early 40s and spends much of his time teaching French literature in California. He has written six novels and six volumes of poetry. Only Broken Glass and African Psycho have so far been translated into English but his reputation in French is very strong. He is something of a dandy and has a wicked, engaging personality. Broken Glass is a difficult novel to analyze. The torrent of words seem intended to complicate the big statements of literature. You get carried along by its raging waters. Witty, silly, funny and vivid, it is an insouciant novel in the very best sense.