Book of the month: Alain Mabanckou

James Baldwin with Marlon Brando on a civil rights march in 1963A while ago, I got a message from a reader in the US. In the wake of the recent widely reported police killings of unarmed African-Americans and the unrest that erupted in several cities as a result, she was keen to read something that would help increase her understanding of racial tensions in her home country. Had I encountered any such books on my literary adventures that I could recommend?

Conscious that this was very much not my area of expertise, I made a few tentative suggestions of things I hoped would at least be a starting point. Chief among them were Alex Haley’s reimagining of the experience of slavery, Roots, and the civil rights activist James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

In fact I had read Baldwin’s most famous book only a few months before and my head was still full of its powerful, disturbing and urgent arguments. So, when I heard that leading Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou (who now divides his time between Paris and the US), had written an ode to him, I knew I had to take a look.

Addressed directly to Baldwin, who died in 1987, Letter to Jimmy is a reading of his life and work. Weaving in extracts of his writing and the words of many other important commentators, such as Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, it follows Baldwin’s life from the streets of Harlem to the French Riviera. In this way, it reveals how Baldwin’s views developed, as well as their significance and resonance in Mabanckou’s own life.

The intimacy of the portrait neatly demonstrates the link between the personal and the political. Through descriptions of photographs of Baldwin, the tensions with his paranoid preacher stepfather and his encounters with homophobia, Mabanckou reveals how our experiences shape our world view and vice versa, and shows how, as he writes in his postscript ‘the life of every author is often its own novel, even a tragic one’.

The narrative bristles with insights. From the different challenges facing migrants in Europe and black Americans, to the ongoing problems in many parts of Africa, where, ‘aid is nothing more than veiled prolonging of enslavement’, Mabanckou engages fully and frankly with many of the passionate and often furious arguments Baldwin made throughout his life.

He has some thought-provoking things to say about African writing too. I was particularly struck by his comments on the rise of what he calls ‘child soldier’ literature – something I encountered several times during my quest – and the pressures he claims that many contemporary authors feel to write exclusively about the negative aspects of their compatriots’ experience. ‘If we are not careful, an African author will be able to do nothing but await the next disaster on his continent before starting a book in which he will spend more time denouncing than writing,’ Mabanckou observes.

These sometimes controversial observations are couched in prose – translated by Sara Meli Ansari – that is often breathtaking in its clarity and beauty. My copy is filled with notes exclaiming ‘yes!’ and ‘wow’ alongside phrases such as this description of Cameroonian author Mongo Beti, who ‘believed that a writer should stand up, place blame where it is due and roar in the face of current events’, or this portrayal of the hidden deprivation a few steps from the bustle of Paris’s prestigious boulevards: ‘behind the thoroughfare, there is always a dark alleyway, a dead end, a cul-de-sac. And at the end of this alley, a man is seated on a bench, a can of beer in his hand.’

That said, the passively sexist slant of the writing is disappointing. With the ubiquitous use of ‘he’ – instead of ‘one’, ‘he or she’, varying ‘he’ with ‘she’, or a plural alternative – and pretty much exclusive reference to works by men, it would be possible to come away from this book thinking that the issues Mabanckou discusses are a purely male preserve.

That would be a shame, because this is a work that deserves to be read widely by people of all genders and ethnicities. A masterclass in the way texts and writers can talk to one another across linguistic, temporal, geographical and political boundaries, it has lessons for everyone – not only on some of the injustices that continue to blight human society, but on writing, storytelling and what words have the power to do. A great and important book.

Letter to Jimmy (Lettre à Jimmy) by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari (Soft Skull, 2014)

Picture: James Baldwin with Marlon Brando on a civil rights march in 1963, from Wikimedia Commons

Mali: truth to tell

This book has been on the list since I started preparing for this project. First published in 1973, Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s The Fortunes of Wangrin won the 1974 Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire and has long been hailed as one of the classics of Francophone African literature. Nearly 40 years later – as far as I can make out – it is still one of the few Malian prose works available in English translation (although I’d love to hear about others if you know of more books that should be added to the list).

The narrative purports to be an account of the life and times of teacher-turned-civil servant and all-round hustler Wangrin, as told to Bâ by the man himself shortly before his death. Working in Mali during the first half of the 20th century – when the country was under French rule – Wangrin quickly learns to play his peers and colonial employers off against one another for his own ends. Deft, resourceful and at times maddeningly slick, Wangrin rises to prominence and prosperity, until at last his ambition, enemies and the prophecy of ruin spoken on his birth conspire to bring him low once more.

Wangrin is an extraordinary creation. Presented as an almost mythic figure in the way his birth is portrayed and declaimed, this ‘profoundly strange human being with so great a mixture of good qualities and faults that, at a mere glance, it was impossible to describe him’, as Bâ writes in his Foreword, fascinates and bewilders his contemporaries and the reader alike. Whether he is undercutting the European millet trade, capitalising on the guilt of two brothers eager to give their relative a proper burial, outsmarting a corrupt official in the courtroom, or beating thugs in a fight, Wangrin is mesmerising. Indeed, his influence extends even to his author, who, whenever Wangrin’s antics teeter on the callous, is quick to leap to his protagonist’s defence, reminding us of his humanity to the poor and weak and the fact that in the Mali of the time ‘it was either destroy or perish, play tricks on others or be their helpless victim’.

The narrative’s colonial setting bears this assertion out. Ranging from wry jabs at the French administration, such as the list of ‘mannerisms that adorn French utterances’ and must be learnt by Malians if they are to converse with ‘white-Whites’, through to scathing portraits of cruelty and prejudice – among them the official who ‘would have been a blessing if he hadn’t had the unfortunate habit of cracking his whip across the backs of a couple of people and taking two or three others to jail who were guilty of the terrible crime of not having saluted their Commandant from twenty-five yards’ – Bâ’s criticism of the regime is unrelenting. Small wonder that in this compromised society, where educated Malians like Wangrin are recruited to spy on and cheat their peers for their European masters, canny citizens play the French at their own game and put their personal interests first.

Yet perhaps the biggest conflict of all lies not within the narrative itself, but on its margins. Sniping at each other across the body of the text are Bâ’s dogged insistence on the veracity of the account and the prevailing critical opinion that the work is largely fictional, embodied in my edition in Abiola Irele’s Introduction, which argues that ‘the essential consideration here must surely be not the exactitude of the recollection but the evocative power of the account’.

That would just about stand had Bâ not been needled into writing an impassioned Afterword in response to his book’s initial reception, in which he insists on the truth of what he has written:

‘Although the existence of the man who chose to call himself Wangrin is generally accepted as a historical fact, they [critics] think I “romanticized” his life somewhat and even added a subtle sprinkling of oral tradition and supernatural events of my own making in order to flesh out the story and give it a patina of symbolical significance.

‘I’ll repeat once more, then, for anyone who still might be in doubt, that I heard everything relating to the life of the hero […] from Wangrin himself, in a Bambara often poetic, full of verve, humor, and vigor, to the soft musical accompaniment of his griot Dieli Maadi. To this very day I recall with emotion Wangrin’s voice against the background of a guitar.’

There may very well be more to this than meets the eye. If I had more knowledge of the context of the work and Bâ’s writing, I might discover that, far from the impassioned appeal it appears, this is yet another turn of the screw on the part of a witty author who is every bit as ingenious as the character he describes.

As it stands, though, for the reader coming to the text with no prior knowledge as I did, the clash between the Introduction and the Afterword is deeply uncomfortable. It was enough to make me refrain from using the word ‘novel’ when talking about the book. To do so felt as though I would be favouring an imposed and largely Western reading of the work at the expense of its author’s intentions. It left me troubled. But perhaps that’s precisely what Bâ set out to do.

The Fortunes of Wangrin (L’Etrange destin de Wangrin) by Amadou Hampâté Bâ, translated from the French by Aina Pavolini Taylor (Indiana University Press, 1999)