New Internationalist

Broken Glass

June 2009

by Alain Mabanckou, translated from French by Helen Stevenson

I described Congolese author Alain Mabanckou’s previous novel African Psycho as a scathing attack on the greed and material values of Africa’s élite. His follow-up is a gentler, but no less astute, affair, set in the lower depths of Congolese society. The owner of the drinking den Credit Gone West asks one of his regulars, who goes by the name of Broken Glass, to write a book about the bar and its customers.

Superficially, the novel is a simple catalogue of the life-histories of the drifters, misfits and losers who make up the clientele of this ramshackle establishment. We meet Robinette, a prostitute who delights in pissing contests with her clients, among a host of other larger-than-life individuals, finally winding up with Broken Glass himself as the past he has been drinking to forget catches up with him. 

The book is a splendidly sustained example of ‘the art that conceals the art’ (a phrase Broken Glass himself would have mocked unmercifully for its pretension). Strewn among its carefully constructed, willfully guileless pages are countless references to and meditations on a vast array of literature, culture, religion and philosophy, drawn equally from African and Western sources. Broken Glass can leap dexterously from an inquiry into what it is that makes Alfred Hitchcock’s films terrifying to the varying scientific methods of Archimedes and Isaac Newton, without ever deviating from the narrative thread of the character whose tale he is telling.

Broken Glass is a multi-layered tribute to the human spirit – beaten but not broken, and laughing drunkenly in the face of adversity.


This column was published in the June 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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