The press says Alain Mabanckou “returns to Pointe-Noire” in his latest book. But did he ever really leave the city of his birth? He may have moved away — first to Brazzaville, then, at the age of 22, to Paris to enroll in law school. And although his first novel, “Blue White Red” (1998), evoked France, Congo, a country as vital to him as the air he breathes, inhabited the book. The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” does not hold true in his case. Pointe-Noire is the place where reality and fiction met and even married each other, spawning a line of descendents. In 2010, “Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty” focused on childhood memories. In 2013, “The Lights of Pointe-Noire”, an intimate, moving book, was about returning to his hometown after being away for 20 years. “I did the math in my head,” he wrote. “I came back to this city 17 years after mother’s death, seven years after my father’s and 23 years after leaving for France. Even falling apart and eaten up by its chaotic sprawl, I am looking for reasons to love this city. An old lover, as faithful as Ulysses’ dog, she stretches her long, sagging arms out to me, showing me day after day the depth of her wounds as though I could heal them with the wave of a magic wand.”
“Petit Piment” is dedicated to the “strays of the Wild Coast” and focuses on the down-and-out. “It’s a tribute to African childhood, to abandoned children, and to women, too,” says the writer, who always includes prostitutes in his novels, quoting Brassens and his songs on their bad reputation. “Petit Piment” is a cruel fable that is also about corruption, poverty, jealousy and the sudden change of ideology. “I’m a child of ‘scientific socialism’, as it was called back then! We used to recite Karl Marx’s texts thinking they came down to us straight from heaven. Communism and socialism brought the personality cult to Africa.”
“Petit Piment” is also a raw, no-holds-barred portrait of Pointe-Noire. “I lived as free as a stray dog wandering around a city that seemed to grind everything down to dust,” says the title character. “Every city has its soul,” wrote Sony Labou Tansi. “Every city has its body, its skin, its intelligence, its stupidity, its monstrous side, its share of mystery.” This quote perfectly describes Mabanckou’s Pointe-Noire, which can be cheerful, cranky and monstrous all at once. Much of that has to do with the author’s hybrid, “tropicalised” writing. “When the right image to describe reality cannot be found in the French language, we pick and choose from our African languages to come to its rescue.”
Mabanckou won the 2006 Renaudot Prize for “Memoirs of a Porcupine”, received an award in 2012 from the Académie française for his body of work and was a Man Booker International Prize finalist this year. He is also up for this year’s Goncourt Prize, whose winner will be announced on 3 November. He splits his time between Paris and Los Angeles, where he teaches French literature at UCLA, but the Collège de France may offer him its chair of artistic and literary creation in 2016. Mabanckou good-naturedly but emphatically argues that literature must not be marginalized or ghettoized.
He does not care much for the word francophonie, for he expresses himself in a “Congolese French” that is all his own. “Hot water never forgets it was cold,” his mother used to tell him. That’s why Pointe-Noire and its lights are never far away. Jean Ferrat sang that no one is ever cured of one’s childhood. Mabanckou does not yet seem cured of Pointe-Noire. So much the better.