26 November 2013

Alain Mabanckou: Mémoires de porc-épic | Memoirs of a Porcupine (2006)

A few reviews have remarked that Alain Mabanckou's Mémoires de porc-épic – translated as Memoirs of a Porcupine, although I prefer 'Porcupine Memoirs' – only contains one sentence, but it doesn't even have that: there isn't a single full stop in the whole 221-page novel, and the only capitalisation used is with proper nouns. But this doesn't make it what I would call an 'experimental' novel. It has six titled divisions, and many other divisions within those divisions: it just doesn't use sentences, preferring often long, comma-strewn passages.
The book is heavily influenced by African stories and legends, the principal one being the concept of human beings having an animal double. It's also influenced by writers from the Americas, and García Marquez's Macondo is mentioned, and there's also a passing reference to Edgar Allan Poe, although the Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga is dwelt on a little more.
But to return to doubles, the central (human) character is Kibandi, whose male ancestors have had animal doubles since way back. Kibandi's father initiates him, making him take the magic potion mavamvunbi, leading him to a porcupine double – although this is a double that performs bad as opposed to good things.
We only learn very near the end that Kibandi called the porcupine Ngoumba – we aren't told this before because 'Ngoumba' means 'porcupine', and the porcupine thinks he's rather more than just a porcupine, which he certainly is, but as we have no other name how else can we refer to him?
Ngoumba is the narrator, and as he has no friends to talk to at the end of the novel he addresses the story to the baobab tree in which he lives. And his story is very funny in spite of its black content, as it is partly a satire on human – especially white human – folly. Ngoumba may be a bad double, but he's pretty cultured – he reads, for instance, although he doesn't think much of the Bible. He even has a conscience, and although he is directed to kill people (acts which he's more or less obliged to fulfil as Kibandi's double) he's by no means always happy to do so.
Amédée, for instance (and unless I'm wildly out this surely calls to mind Ionesco's play?), is a pretentious asshole who may be highly learned but he wants everyone to know it, especially all the young girls who fall at his feet, and as he has nothing but insults for Kibandi he has to be killed. Interestingly (and this brings us back to Horacio Quiroga), Amédée has unwittingly spoken of his own downfall: with a group of young virgins at his feet hanging on to his every word but not hanging onto their virginity for long if Amédée can help it, he speaks of a short story by the Uruguayan writer.
This (although the title isn't mentioned) is Quiroga's 'El almohadón de plumas' ('The Feather Pillow') from his collection Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte (1917) (Stories of Love, Madness and Death), which concerns the death of Alicia, who has had the blood sucked out of her temples for several days by a small monster living in her pillow: the porcupine kills more rapidly than this, by injecting his quills into the temple or base of the skull, although the result is the same (albeit less visible as he licks off the blood and waits a few seconds for the mark to disappear).
The porcupine doesn't at all like killing the baby of a dull-witted drunkard Kibandi has a grudge against because the man owes him money and insults him, and the killings increasingly lose any justification, until the porcupine fears – after 99 murders – that the next will be the last and be a disaster. By avoiding it, it doesn't happen, although the terrible twins Koty and Koté kill Kibandi, and yet the porcupine lives on after the death of his double, talking all the while to the baobab tree – maybe he's reprieved, can settle down and have kids. The reader hopes so.
Humans lose out in this book, but readers (in spite of all those, er, white lies) don't. This is entrancing, gripping, and although it may sound a little gruesome the violence is on a cartoon level: think of Astérix. Most of all this is a very original – and human – read.

My other posts on Alain Mabanckou:

Alain Mabanckou: Verre Cassé | Broken Glass
Alain Mabanckou: Lettre à Jimmy | Letter to Jimmy
Alain Mabanckou: Black Bazar | Black Bazaar

No comments: