This Friday’s Last Words feature comes from Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou, one of the few writers able to pull off the Writer-As-Protagonist conceit with sly, irreverent, acidic aplomb. I’m not a particularly gifted reviewer, so I direct you to this Bookslut review of the book.
Also, from a great interview on the BOMB website between Mabanckou and Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainana:
BW I wanted to approach the idea of what you want to do with the French language in your work. How do you see yourself as someone trying to own French somehow?
AM Given my frustration with not finding literature in Congolese languages, writing in French implied that I wouldn’t write anything similar to what classic French writers tend to write—very polished, clean literatures respecting the rules of L’Acadamie franacaise. But at the same time when I read certain French writers like Louis-Ferdinand Caline, for example, who wrote Journey to the End of the Night, I saw that it was possible to break the rules. Broken Glass is written in French, but if you feel the rhythm of the prose, it’s like the Congolese way of speaking. That’s why I use only one kind of punctuation throughout the book: the comma. I’m proud that I now finally found a way to deal with the French.
BW: Structurally, Broken Glass is fascinating. It seemed to me as if the character Broken Glass was speaking to me, yet I was reading him on the page. I was taking in the sound somehow, although I read it in translation. And also the setting, the bar Credit Gone West! (laughter) Here is this very drastic, very crazy place, and this half-crazy man who has digested this world of literature and is speaking back to it. I mean, that is incredibly powerful because it almost sends the center of the world to this decrepit bar in Congo-Brazzaville, the middle of nowhere. Broken Glass, the character, is taking from Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Garcia Marquez, and from all these other writers, weaving them into his speech and speaking to them and owning their territory. Beautiful.
I love a book that eats Great Western Culture and Literature, then vomits it back out, grinning.
Alain Mabanckou, Broken Glass, trans. Helen Stevenson:
I must go now, there’s nothing left for me to do round here, I must get rid of this book, but then where can I throw it, I don’t know, I turn back towards Credit Gone West, though I don’t know why, they think I’m crazy because I’m writing even as I push my way through the crowd, and I go past the guy who calls himself Holden, he’s still giving me his rebellious adolescent nonsense, asking me “hey, Broken Glass, can you tell me what happens to the poor ducks in cold countries when it’s wintertime, do they get put in the zoo or migrate to other countries or do the poor things just get stuck in the snow, I really want to know”, he knows it off by heart, he doesn’t even change the order of his words each time he asks the question, and I say to him, “Holden, don’t you think you’d have been better off asking the ducks in the cold countries, while we’re still down there, that must be one of the things in that book you’re holding, surely”, and he looks at me, very disappointed, and murmurs “that’s not nice, you don’t like ducks, I can tell, I actually really want to know, you just can’t imagine how terrible it is for those poor creatures”, and he starts sobbing, and I ask him once more what time it is, even if he has got an alarm clock strung round his neck, it’s a question of respect, and he refuses to tell me. “I’m not telling you the time if you won’t tell me what happens to the poor little ducks in cold countries in wintertime” and then he comes up really close, looks at me for a moment, tells me it’s very nearly midnight, so I hand him the book and say to him quietly—my friend, give that to the Stubborn Snail, but you mustn’t open it, even if you’re in it too, but I decided not to write about your life, I haven’t got time, and anyway, I expect you were going to tell me you were a student somewhere abroad, that your friends beat you up in the dorm, that you’ve been wandering all over Manhattan, you’ve been in New York, you saw the ducks in winter in Central Park and all that jazz, now don’t give me that wide-eyed look, I’ve never set foot there myself, no one’s ever told me your story, Holden, but in a way you almost insulted me, it doesn’t matter, you just enjoy your wine, live your life, we’ll met again in the other world, Holden, we’ll have a drink together, and you can tell me your entire life story, I’ll answer your question, I’ll tell you what they do with the poor little ducks in cold countries during wintertime, ciao, old chap, I must be off now, my place is in paradise, and if some cheating angels go telling lies up there to stop me entering by the great wide gate, well, believe me, I’ll get in anyway, through the window