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
August 03, 2015
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
The Atomic Era Turns 70, as Nuclear Hazards Endure
Nelson Valdes
An Internet Legend: the Pope, Fidel and the Black President
Robert Hunziker
The Perfectly Nasty Ocean Storm
Jack Dresser
The Case of Alison Weir: Two Palestinian Solidarity Organizations Borrow from Joe McCarthy’s Playbook
Ahmad Moussa
Incinerating Palestinian Children
Greg Felton
Greece Succumbs to Imperialist Banksterism
Binoy Kampmark
Stalling the Trans-Pacific Partnership: the Failure of the Hawai’i Talks
Ted Rall
My Letter to Nick Goldberg of the LA Times
Mark Weisbrot
New Greek Bailout Increases the Possibility of Grexit
Jose Martinez
Black/Hispanic/Women: a Leadership Crisis
Victor Grossman
German Know-Nothings Today
Patrick Walker
We’re Not Sandernistas: Reinventing the Wheels of Bernie’s Bandwagon
Norman Pollack
Moral Consequences of War: America’s Hegemonic Thirst
Ralph Nader
Republicans Support Massive Tax Evasion by Starving IRS Budget
Alexander Reid Ross
Colonial Pride and the Killing of Cecil the Lion
Suhayb Ahmed
What’s Happening in Britain: Jeremy Corbyn and the Future of the Labour Party
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas: Into the Void
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
John Wight
The Murder of Ali Saad Dawabsha, a Palestinian Infant Burned Alive by Israeli Terrorists
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington
Mary Lou Singleton
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
Robert Fantina
Israeli Missteps Take a Toll
Pete Dolack
Speculators Circling Puerto Rico Latest Mode of Colonialism
Ron Jacobs
Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues
Paul Buhle
The Leftwing Seventies?
Binoy Kampmark
The TPP Trade Deal: of Sovereignty and Secrecy
David Swanson
Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US
Robert Hunziker
Human-Made Evolution
Shamus Cooke
Why Obama’s “Safe Zone” in Syria Will Inflame the War Zone
David Rosen
Hillary Clinton: Learn From Your Sisters
Sam Husseini
How #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter Can Devalue Life
Shepherd Bliss
Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President
Howard Lisnoff
The Wrong Argument
Louis Proyect
Manufacturing Denial
Tracey Harris
Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future