28 July 2015

Alain Mabanckou: Lettre à Jimmy | Letter to Jimmy (2007)

On the twentieth anniversary of the death of James Baldwin (1924–87), Alain Mabanckou writes the fascinating Letter to Jimmy to his idol, with whom he has more than a few things in common: Baldwin was black, born in America, and exiled himself in France, whereas Mabanckou was born in Africa, lived in France, and now lives in the United States.

Mabanckou uses a framing device to his narrative: a tramp on Santa Monica beach who looks as if he might be a character out of a Baldwin story who appears in the Avant-Lettre and the Après-Lettre and to whom he wants to dedicate the 170-page 'letter', which is throughout addressed to Baldwin using the familiar 'tu' form.

The book is in part a short life story of Baldwin, the story of an outsider: black, a bastard who never knew his father, born into a poor working-class environment, and who was a homosexual. His paranoid step-father hated himself and Baldwin left home at an early age and then at the age of twenty-four left the prejudice of the racist US for France, where his literary hero Richard Wright had gone a short time before.

Wright had been impressed by Baldwin's early writings, but the younger man had to break free from the influence of his literary father: unfortunately, in doing so he created a rift which would never heal. Baldwin was constructing an aesthetic which saw the 'protest novel' as superficial and harmful to the black cause and his essay 'Everyone's Protest Novel' started out as an attack on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) but became more of an attack on Wright's Native Son (1940).

In 1970 Baldwin moved to Saint-Paul de Vence in Provence, where he died from cancer seventeen years later. He was buried in Hartsdale, New York state, and is remembered not only as a great writer but as a strong fighter for civil rights.

Mabanckou seems to be haunted by Baldwin, and mentions the photo he has of him both at the end and the beginning. He bought the photo from one of the bouquinistes at the side of the Seine, a famous photo in which he's wearing a white shirt, holding a cigarette and looking upwards with a half smile and wrinkled forehead. Mabanckou asks: 'What's the weather like in paradise, Jimmy?'

The final sentence in the book is left to Baldwin, a quotation from The Fire Next Time: Mabanckou says 'Jimmy' based his dream on the redemption of 'human nature' – a fuzzy concept that Sartre (a man Mabanckou calls Baldwin's 'friend') incidentally went out of his way to deny the existence of – the recapturing of what we lost a long time ago: the beauty of life. He finds this sentence a great inspiration:

'Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have.'

My other posts on Alain Mabanckou:

Alain Mabanckou: Verre Cassé | Broken Glass
Alain Mabanckou: Mémoires de porc-épic | Memoirs of a Porcupine
Alain Mabanckou: Black Bazar | Black Bazaar

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