Books

Review: Alain Mabanckou, Black Moses

The story of a Congolese orphan ducking and diving between triumph and despair, Alain Mabanckou's Black Moses will charm and provoke

It’s not just the scorching sunshine cover of Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses which makes it stand out so vividly from its peers. Gentle context-setting introductions are not Mabanckou’s thing; from the first page, this exuberant new novel from the Man Booker-nominated Congolese grabs its reader by the hand and throws her round the dance floor, revving her up and making her laugh. If you’re new to Mabanckou you’ll be charmed and intrigued. If you’ve read his audacious 1993 debut African Psycho (now being re-issued on paperback) you’ll simply sigh with relief and think, ‘Phew, he’s still got it.’

Mabanckou is celebrated for his minxy mischievousness, and his skill in making the colloquialisms of African speech and language amusing and enchanting. Perhaps the first trick he performs, at least on prospective reviewers, is to name his young protagonist Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami ya Bakoko.

Thank God then (something the orphanage priest who bestowed the boy’s name upon him encourages him to do every day) that he is known as Moses, a prophet so important God caught his attention by dramatically appearing to him in the flames of a burning bush. ‘The Angel of the Lord will appear to you too’ the priest assures him. ‘Don’t expect him to burst out of a bush though, that’s already been done, and God hates to do the same thing twice.’

Moses lurches from brightly lit sparks of rebellious chutzpah to dark times of beaten despair

Like most of Mabanckou’s work, this book will stimulate anyone looking for a colourful guide to the post-revolution People’s Republic of Congo. It’s all here, backdropping Moses’ perilous journey as he seeks his place in the big wide scary world outside the orphanage; the pockets of seething political conflicts and continued oppressions, the hurt, fear and hope which lurches in the shadow of a nation stumbling on its own two feet.

But what makes Black Moses so memorable is Mabanckou’s captivating story-telling, and the authenticity and depth of his heartfelt characters. After an early crushing of the spirit, teenage orphan Moses battles to stay upright in a life which lurches from brightly lit sparks of rebellious chutzpah to dark times of beaten despair. And we follow him down every new path with unabated curiosity and buckets of goodwill. This vivacious, emotionally engaging novel confirms Mabanckou as one of the diamonds of African literature.

Black Moses, by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99) is out now 

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