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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,
Moki 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.