Tuesday, 9 April 2013

'Black Bazaar' by Alain Mabanckou (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 11)

Important as it is to look back at history, sometimes it's good to just relax and chill out with some friends.  Time to head off to Jip's Bar then to meet a man who likes to watch the world (and women) pass by - in style, bien sûr ;)

Black Baza(a)r by Alain Mabanckou (translated by Sarah Ardizzone - from Serpent's Tail)
What's it all about?
Our entry into Mabanckou's world is an aspiring writer from the Congo ('the little one') living illegally in Paris.  He's a happy soul, enjoying life in the French capital - until, that is, he is deserted by his partner, who runs off with their daughter (and a Tom-Tom player...) back to his home country.  What's a man to do...

Fessologue, as our friend is known (because of his elevation of considering women's derrières to a science), copes with it all by sitting in Jip's café, talking rubbish with other African immigrants and visiting a writer friend who gives him advice.  Eventually, he decides that the best way to cope with his issues is to buy a clunky old typewriter and start writing a book about his experiences - a book called Black Bazar...

Mabanckou's novel appears at first glance to be just a series of events and anecdotes, fun stories about the African diaspora in Paris.  However, they soon become more personal, exploring the relationship between Fessologue and his partner, Couleur d'origine ('Colour of Origin'), perhaps in an attempt to understand why it went wrong.

Don't get me wrong though - this is not a book of regrets and tears.  Fessologue is a dedicated follower of fashion, a man who is just as at home choosing Italian hand-made suits as discussing the relative merits of female posteriors.  He heads out into the Parisian night, on the prowl for fresh arrivals from his home continent to (as he says) "chasser sans merci les gazelles sauvages" ('mercilessly hunt down the wild gazelles').  It's easy to conclude that he deserved everything he got...

Black Bazaar though is also a novel about writers and writing.  The book begins with a great prologue in which a friend interrogates Fessologue at the bar, referencing famous novels in an attempt to pin down what exactly it is the writer is planning to write.  Frustrated by the rejection of ideas about white sheep, old men and fishing, and love in a time of cholera, Roger the Franco-Ivorian dismisses his friend's ability to ever get a story down on paper:
"Écoute, mon gars, sois réaliste!  Laisse tomber tes histoires de t'asseoir et d'écrire tous les jours, y a des gens plus calés pour ça, et ces gens-là on les voit à la télé, ils parlent bien, et quand ils parlent y a un sujet, y a un verbe et y a un complément.  Ils sont nés pour ça, ils ont été élevés dans ça, alors que nous autres les nègres, c'est pas notre dada, l'écriture."
pp.13/14 (Éditions du Seuil, 2009)

"Listen up, my boy, be realistic!  Drop your sitting around and writing every day, there's people much better at it, and those people, you see them on telly, they talk well, and when they talk there's a subject, there's a verb and there's an object.  They're born for that, they're raised in that, while us blacks, it's not our thing, writing."***
I wonder how autobiographical this conversation is...

Black Bazaar reminds me of a Russian book I read last year, Happiness is Possible.  Both deal with a writer in a big city, telling stories about life there for someone who was born elsewhere.  Both have been left by their partners and use their writing to deal with the hurt, gradually moving from humorous sketches of daily life to more personal stories.  Were it not for the snappy clothes and the Pelforth beers, Fessologue would fit in well in Moscow ;)

As it is, he's another writer in (self-imposed) exile, able to look at matters from a distance, from a different perspective, and it's a point which isn't lost on our Congolese friend.  He muses:
"Est-ce qu'un écrivain doit toujours vivre dans un autre pays, et de préférence être contraint d'y vivre pour avoir des choses à écrire et permettre aux autres d'analyser l'influence de l'exil dans son écriture?" (p.182)

"Must a writer always live in another country, and preferably be forced to live there, in order to have things to write and to allow others to analyse the influence of exile in their writing?"***
Hmm.  Perhaps I should read some of Mabanckou's other books, set in his home country, to find out ;)

In the end though, this is a book about our friend Fessologue.  It's an enjoyable romp, a welcome change from the tone of the rest of this year's longlist, and I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that it has a relatively happy end.  But even this ending is a little ambiguous - what constitutes a happy ending for our African immigrant?  Is it keeping a firm hold on his roots, or adapting to life in a new country?  Or is there a middle ground?  One to consider for all the ex-pats among us...

***All translations into English are my sorry efforts...

***** Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Possibly.  It'll be there or thereabouts, a book which is entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time.  On finishing this one, I ordered two more of Mabanckou's novels - which shows how much I liked it :)

A couple of points...  I'd love to see a woman's take on this work, as I occasionally got the feeling that old Fess was a touch on the chauvinist side.  Would a female reader relate with him enough to enjoy the book?

Also, I read this in French, so I have no idea how good the translation is.  The only thing I know is that the protagonist's name was translated as 'buttologist'/'buttocks man' - which I dislike for many reasons (my preference would have been to leave the name in French!).

Will it make the shortlist?
Possibly not.  I'd love it to make the final six, but I'm not sure the judges will be able to squeeze this past some of the doom and gloom stories - and the shortlist will be a dourer place for it ;)

Another one done and dusted :)  From an African story, next time we'll be looking at a story in Africa.  Buckle up - we're going off road...