Thursday, September 10, 2009

broken glass

Seeing the funny side of failure

Review of Verre Cassé by Alain Mabanckou

Although officially labelled a novel, Verre Cassé is essentially an amalgam of the life stories of the people washed up in the bar “Le Crédit a voyagé”, somewhere in Congo (Brazzaville) as told by the most faithful customer, nick-named Verre Cassé (Broken Glass). Mimicking the unbridled speech flow of someone who had a few glasses and frustrations too many, Mabanckou writes without using a single full stop. Each chapter is a single rambling sentence, starting with a lower case and ending without any punctuation mark. This makes it a tad difficult to follow initially (as it would be difficult to follow the life story of a drunkard as told by himself down the pub past midnight), but I got used to it over time. I just had to adjust my attention span to the length of these uninterrupted rambles. (Note that I heroically resisted the temptation to write this review in the same style!)

While the book has its sad and depressing moments, on account of all the miscellaneous failures that led the characters to end up in this dump (and which they, to the last man, blame on the women in their lives), it can also be very funny a lot of the time. Early on, the scene where a committee of government officials searches for a catch-phrase for their boss, going through a whole dictionary of (unsuitable) citations, is quite hilarious, as are some of the events in and around the bar.

Citations occur not only in that scene, but throughout the book as a hallmark of our narrator. They come so thick and fast that I am wondering how on earth the translator of the English edition (which appeared a few months ago) got out of this problem. There are allusions to francophone literature en masse, both from France and from French-speaking Africa, but also to French chanson, from Brassens to modern times. You don’t have to have an education in French literature and culture to enjoy this book, but it would help enormously. Failing that, one can always read it for the drunken antics including a pissing contest.

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