Congo Paris Congo

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Alain Mabanckou’s Blue White Red conjures up a sense of déjà vu.  Though no fault of his own, the author’s later novels were translated into English before his first one.  They are more innovative than Blue White Red, which replicates a situation that many Africans felt several decades ago, namely, unbounding enthusiasm for the “mother country,” the colonial power—fascination and acceptance of the colonial situation that borders on idolatry.  Those of us who have followed African literature, have seen all this before with other Francophone novels from the continent, although the venue this time is Congo (Brazzaville) and the coveted prize not simply France but Paris.  And the title? The three stripes of the French flag: blue, white, red.  The original French publication was in 1998.

Late in this very sad narrative—after the main character, Massala-Massala, has finally reached Paris, the holy grail, and is on the verge of “earning” a large sum of money for the first time since his arrival—everything in his life suddenly implodes.  He’s been tutored by a much more worldly African, named Préfet, told how to pass bad checks and purchase Metro tickets at the end of the month.  Then, they will sell them for half-price to other illegal residents (mostly Africans) who can’t afford to play full price because they are all part of the underground economy, living on the edge like Massala himself.  Things begin to look uncertain at the first ticket booth where Massala intends to pass a bad check.  At the moment of the transaction, he realizes that he doesn’t know how to write a check.  Back in Congo, he never had a checking account.  Nor has he had one in Paris since he arrived, while he’s been learning his “trade.”

Much earlier in the story—in fact most of the first half—Mabanckou focuses on another character, Moki, who has already returned from France, successfully loaded to the nines.  Moki has built his family an extensive house in their village, bought two luxury cars for his father who begins operating a taxi service, begun acting like a Parisian, speaking French French, and affecting French mannerisms—clothing, especially.  He’s accomplished these things over several years, returning home once each year with the bounty of his success in Paris.  There’s no evidence that he’s acquired any education or professional skills; rather, it’s money that he exhibits in the form of gifts for everyone.  In his village,
BlueWhiteRed_MabanckouMoki won’t move around on foot; he has a chauffeur who drives him in one of the taxis, so that Moki never opens a door for himself.  Moreover, he claims that Paris is in his pocket.  Although he is totally self-centered, after several years Moki helps Massala get to France, to Paris.

Reality sinks in almost immediately.  Moki’s a con-artist, operator, living on the underground economy.  Yet Moki shares the place he lives in with Massala. It’s the top floor of an empty building, scheduled for demolition: “We had no elevator to get all the way to the eighth floor.  The building was poorly lit and smelled of mildew.  There were no other
occupants besides us.

“We could hear everyone that climbed up and down from inside our room.  Friends of Moki’s whom I didn’t know.  We all slept there, nobody knew what anyone else did during the day.  His friends arrived very late at night, like felines, masters of the art of positioning their steps on the wood staircase without making it creak.  In the room, they whispered, popped open Heinekens, at roast chicken, and went to bed around 2:00 a.m. to get up at 5:00 a.m.”

Moki’s the “landlord,” the man in control.  In time, Massala will learn that all of the occupants are involved in questionable activities: breaking into mailboxes, subletting other abandoned buildings, making fake residency papers—the invisible community behind the underground economy.  I am reminded of a conversation I had ten years ago with an African in New York City’s social services who told me that during the 2000 census the number of Africans living in the city where undercounted by about 90%.  He told me that they were packed into rooms in abandoned buildings on the edges of the city and sleeping in shifts.  It was the only way they could survive.

The only difference in Mabanckou’s revealing novel is that some of the characters (Moki and Préfet) have become quite successful, meaning rich—at least for the moment.  It would be unfair for me to reveal Massala’s situation at the end of Blue White Red, other than to say that one strength of the novel is the main character’s profound understanding of what has happened to him and the implication of what that means for his future.

The impressive translation by Alison Dundy is fluid and fast-moving.   She understands Africa and her profession.

Alain Mabanckou: Blue White Red

Trans. by Alison Dundy

Indiana University Press, 136 pp., $17.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 03, 2015
Sal Rodriguez
How California Prison Hunger Strikes Sparked Solitary Confinement Reforms
Lawrence Ware
Leave Michael Vick Alone: the Racism and Misogyny of Football Fans
Dave Lindorff
Is Obama the Worst President Ever?
Vijay Prashad
The Return of Social Democracy?
Jeralynn Bluford
Quantitative Easing for People: Jeremy Corbyn’s Radical Proposal
Paul Craig Roberts
The Rise of the Inhumanes: Barron, Bybee, Yoo and Bradford
Lynn Holland
For the Love of Water: El Salvador’s Mining Ban
Geoff Dutton
Time for Some Anger Management
Jack Rasmus
The New Colonialism: Greece and Ukraine
Norman Pollack
American Jews and the Iran Accord: The Politics of Fear
John Grant
Sorting Through the Bullshit in America
David Macaray
The Unbearable Lightness of Treaties
Chad Nelson
Lessig Uses a Scalpel Where a Machete is Needed
September 02, 2015
Paul Street
Strange Words From St. Bernard and the Sandernistas
Jose Martinez
Houston, We Have a Problem: False Equivalencies on Police Violence
Henry Giroux
Global Capitalism and the Culture of Mad Violence
Ajamu Baraka
Making Black Lives Matter in Riohacha, Colombia
William Edstrom
Wall Street and the Military are Draining Americans High and Dry
David Altheide
The Media Syndrome Between a Glock and a GoPro
Yves Engler
Canada vs. Africa
Ron Jacobs
The League of Empire
Andrew Smolski
Democracy and Privatization in Neoliberal Mexico
Stephen Lendman
Gaza: a Socioeconomic Dead Zone
Norman Pollack
Obama, Flim-Flam Artist: Alaska Offshore Drilling
Binoy Kampmark
Australian Border Force Gore
Ruth Fowler
Ask Not: Lost in the Crowd with Amanda Palmer
Kim Nicolini
Remembering Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America