Hey, everyone! Hope you enjoyed that first fun-filled, fabulous and, uh, philosophical book review. Really hope it gave you something to mull over, maybe one or two of you even went out and bought the book. If you did or if you didn’t, either way, don’t really care, I’m just here to make reviews. Coming up we’ve got a little bit of a longer review planned for you, so strap in and let’s do this!
Today we’re looking at Verre Cassé by Alain Mabanckou, a Congolese author. It takes place largely in a bar called Le crédit à voyagé, which literally means the credit has gone away or traveled, but practically translates to something along the lines of “credit or tabs are a thing of the past.” It’s pretty good, the book that is, I’d say definitely better than drowning yourself in a river, but decidedly worse than Mama Mfoa’s bicycle chicken.
Mama Mfoa’s bicycle chicken: meat that absolutely melts in your mouth, and Mama Mfoa? What a gal. Really the whole package.
Right, yeah, so this book is called Verre Cassé, and that means “Broken Glass” in english. This novel takes place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the quartier Trois-Cents, where everyone has fun nicknames. There’s good ol’ Pampers, named thusly after his adult diapers and leaky bum. There’s Robinette, or “Little Faucet” in English, named thusly after her notorious bladder and ability to pee an upwards of ten minutes straight. And maybe now you’re thinking that this isn’t the kind of book for you, it’s all about people’s nooks, crannies, and excrement—well, let me just tell you! There’s also Zero-Faute, which means “Zero Fault” in English, named thusly after the fact that he, uh, doesn’t make any mistakes. Or something. There’s L’Escargot Entêté, which means “The Withdrawn Snail” in English, named thusly after… well, actually, I don’t remember why he was called The Withdrawn Snail. He’s the bar owner, and he’s friends with Verre Cassé, the protagonist… he goes through all that hullabaloo with the town and the epic similes… Lemme check real quick…
… Not real sure! I think he’s just a really resilient guy, probably a lot of fun to be around, just like a snail,
Finally, we’ve got the eponymous Verre Cassé, who’s the story’s narrator and is charged with the task of writing a history of the bar and its patrons. He’s named thusly after the fact that he is, in fact, a sorry sod. He goes through all the ups and downs typically associated with drinking your life away in a bar: losing your wife, your job, and your sexual potency, though not necessarily in that order. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to tell whether or not you’ve hit rockbottom, but when you get rejected by a prostitute and have to pick up your own excrement with your hands all in one night then I think you can probably call it. Just go ahead, throw down the flag and call it what it is. Maybe even plant that flag in your own feces and own it.
That about does it for introductions and characters. On a stylistic level, this novel follows that whole found document tradition, kind of like Candide or, I don’t know, the Persian Letters of Montesquieu. This time, instead of being an epistolary novel or a text tucked away in the breast pocket of a fallen soldier, the novel really captures what it’s like to have someone saddle up next to you at the bar and start talk-breathing on you. Mabanckou has also done away with periods or any sort of hard punctuation in this novel; the whole tale is one long sentence broken up by commas and page breaks. Kind of like El Asco or, you know, any other novel who’s used this gimmick to mimic “oral tradition.” I’m putting oral tradition in quotations here because I’m specifically referring to the storytelling tradition of recounting your life’s woes in a bar, which is what both of those novels are: woes and drinks, drinks and woes. Honestly, that seems to be what’s left of the Western oral tradition since we stopped talking to one another in person and since we also don’t teach kids about foreplay in sex-ed.
Just gonna, uh, pop on over to Wikipedia real quick. Definitely gonna switch this baby on over to the ol’ English Wiki. It’s not for me; it’s for you. I mean, it just makes the whole thing simpler and then I’ll have more time to edit stuff like this out. I don’t have a problem reading the article in French. I don’t. Honestly, I’ll probably even do it later.
Also, I probably ought to donate to their page, seems like they’re in some dire straits, what with all these little pop-ups asking for a dollar. But if I’m not making any money of these reviews, neither will they! Hoorah! Let’s see,
A-L-A-I-N space M-A-B-A-N-C-K-O-U
So, yeah, the year was 1966. Mahanky-Bancky was born a French citizen in Congo-Brazzaville, since, well, they were still otherwise occupied. He took law classes in the Congo and at 22 he, uh, did the France. That expression did not carry over as well as I wanted it to. Il a fait la France. It’s a reference to part of his book, there’s this guy and he, well, did the France, meaning he went to France and married a white girl and moved to a nice white neighborhood blah, blah, blah… he did the France. I’m not saying big Al is married or anything, I wanna be clear, I’m just referencing a character in his book. I mean, Ally-Al did go to France, but I don’t know if he married a white girl and moved to a white neighborhood or any of that. He does live in Santa Monica though, so it looks like he did the America, too. I wonder if France knows anything about that. *Ba-da-ching*(drum, drum, high-hat… I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that written out. If I Google search ba-da-ching… oh, it’s more of a Ba-Dum-Ching or Ba-Dum-Tssh according to this meme. Noted)
I should probably read somebody else’s review as well, while I’m at it. I mean, sure, as I said, I speak French. Like, I’ll put it on my résumé or whatever and correct people when they mispronounce Au Revoir! but I’m not, like, I don’t know, Proust. Not that any of this had any bearing on my choice to read that Wikipedia article in English. I wanna be clear on that.
Let’s just have a little look together, make sure I’m on the right track…
Honestly, if nothing else, we’re learning how to review together. I’m looking at this review here on e-litterature.net, and you know what, I’d say we’re on the right track. Sure, they’re more focused on the death of Verre Cassé’s mother, the ironic tone Mabanckou takes in his novel, and this metaphor of birth that represents Africa… oh man, I really missed that… So the prevalence of alcohol in the narrative is likened to amniotic fluid, guarding him in a womb-like state of tranquility from the death of his mother and his ongoing domestic troubles. Yeah, man, that makes sense. And here I was just making fun of everyone’s nicknames, I totally should’ve… huh…
Alright, so! Quotes. We got some quotes here that I’ve gone through the trouble (it was really no trouble, just a quick, y’know, little side project, barely took five minutes) of translating. I think they’re kinda funny and they’ll hopefully give you a little taste for the tone and texture of the novel, so yeah, let’s check em’ out:
QUOTE NUMBER ONE:
Le patron du Crédit a voyagé n’aime pas les formules toutes faites du genre “en Afrique quand un vieillard meurt, c’est une bibliothèque qui brûle,” et lorsqu’il entend ce cliché bien développé, il est plus que vexé et lance aussitôt “ça dépend de quel vieillard, arrêtez donc vos conneries, je n’ai confiance qu’en ce qui est écrit,”
The owner of “the Tabs are settled” doesn’t care much for proverbs along the lines of “In Africa, when an elder dies, it’s a library that burns,” becoming more than vexed whenever he hears this tired-out cliché and retaliating with “that all depends on which elder, so shut your mouth, I don’t trust anything that isn’t written.”
It’s a pretty good quote, big laughs there for sure. Hard to miss the irony when you allegedly write a novel that strives to recreate the spoken word, takes everything in the second degré, and exaggerates the sweet deets beyond all reasonable proportions, all upon the provocation of a man that only believes things that are written down. Yup. Hah. Explaining jokes and context. Good stuff.
But actually, while we’re speaking of exaggeration, this novel is just one big wild ride of epic similes, hyperboles and uh… let’s see… Google search literary devices… amplification! Got a lot of amplification in there for sure, just like we see in
QUOTE NUMBER TWO
“Les Services de sécurité présidentielle m’ont dit qu’il y a même des bébés qui se prénomment ‘j’accuse,” et que dire alors de toutes ces jeunes filles en chaleur qui se sont fait tatouer cette formule sur leur paire de fesses, hein, et d’ailleurs, ironie du sort, les clients des prostituées exigent que celles-ci aient ce tatouage, vous voyez dans quelle merde vous me foutez, hein…”
“The Secret Service has informed me that there are even babies being named j’accuse, and now there’s talk of young girls in heat getting this catchphrase tattooed on their buttocks, and furthermore, ironically, the brothel’s clientele has even started to demand for these girls specifically, the ones sporting this tattoo, do you see the kind of shit you’ve got me in, huh…”
Probably should’ve given you some context before I tossed you on in there with that quote, but basically the president was mad because his agricultural minister ripped of Emile Zola and everyone loved it. They loved it so much, that everyone in the Congo started saying “j’accuse” and they even started naming babies “j’accuse,” and tattooing it on their… you read the quote. You get it.
This next quote is a bit of a doozy, but I thought it was a pretty good example of the kind of humor one could expect from this novel as well as some of the literary devices previously mentioned. It does get pretty intense though, and the language and imagery may be distasteful to some, so I mean, if that’s not in your practice or whatever, skip this quote and its subsequent translation.
Cool. Without further ado, I present to you (a literal pissing contest)
QUOTE NUMBER THREE
“[Craque], nullard, craque, tu vas craquer, tu sais même pas pisser, craque, moi j’ai encore des litres dans mon réservoir, je te préviens, fais attention, arrête de pisser si tu veux pas être ridicule devant les gens, arrête maintenant, dis au revoir et merci,” Robinette criait comme ça, le type a répondu “tais-toi et pisse, grosse poule, les vrais maîtres ne parlent pas, pourquoi je vais dire au revoir et merci, jamais, jamais de la vie, c’est toi qui vas craquer Robinette, et je vais te baiser,” et il a pressé ses deux boules poilues, le débit de ses urines a augmenté de plusieurs crans, et nous avons écarquillé les yeux parce que ce type prétentieux pissait maintenant avec plus de conviction, et nous avons constaté que sa particule élémentaire avait doublé, voire triplé de dimension au point que nous nous sommes frotté les yeux en signe d’incrédulité, et ses boules tout d’un coup gonflées pendouillaient comme deux vieux gourdes pleines de vin de palme, et il pissait avec jubilation, et il sifflotait au passage un cantique de la racaille du quartier Trois-Cents, puis un concert baroque, puis un air de Zao afin d’attirer les regards vers lui, pendant ce temps Robinette avait le cœur à l’ouvrage, elle pétait à plusieurs reprises au point que nous avons été contraints de nous boucher le nez et les oreilles parce que ça sentait très fort et résonnait comme des feux d’artifice que nous entendons lors de la Fête au bouc, […] et alors que nous étions concentrés à scruter le derrière éléphantesque de Robinette, un témoin nous a informés que, de l’autre côté, Casimir qui mène la grande vie opérait un tournant décisif, un miracle qui méritait une béatification papale, nous nous sommes tous rués pour voir ça de très près, faut jamais rater les miracles même si ça ne se passe pas à Lourdes, faut être le témoin de ce qui se racontera quelques siècles plus tard, mieux vaut en être le témoin que d’écouter des perroquets vous réciter une histoire d’amour au temps du choléra, et nous nous sommes donc empressés vers Casimir qui mène la grande vie pour voir son miracle historique, et nous sommes tombés des nues, c’était pas croyable ce qui se déroulait sous nos yeux, il fallait y être pour le croire, et nous avons observé que, dans ses zig-zags urinaires, Casimir qui mène la grande vie avait dessiné avec talent la carte de France, ses urines orthodoxes tombaient en plein cœur de la ville de Paris, “Vous n’avez encore rien vu, je peux aussi dessiner la carte de la Chine et pisser dans une rue précise de la ville de Pékin,” et Robinette ne comprenait plus rien, elle s’est retournée, a jeté un coup d’œil avant de nous lancer “revenez vers moi, je vous dis, revenez vers moi, qu’est-ce que vous regardez donc là-bas, vous êtes tous des pédés ou quoi,” mais nous étions plutôt captivés par le mystérieux concurrent prétentieux qu’on applaudissait désormais et qu’on avait du coup surnommé Casimir le Géographe, ce type prenait goût à ce défi, “moi je fait le marathon et pas le sprint, je vais la sauter, je vais l’épuiser, faites-moi confiance” a-t-il dit en sifflotant son cantique de la racaille de quartier Trois-Cents, puis son concert baroque et son air de Zao, et on applaudissait de plus en plus pendant que la carte de France s’agrandissait de toutes ses régions, y avait un autre petit dessin à côté de cette œuvre magnifique, “mais dis donc, c’est quoi ça ce truc qu’il a dessiné à côté de la carte de France, c’est quoi ça, hein “ a demandé un témoin égaré par l’art de Casimir qui mène la grande vie, “c’est la Corse, imbécile” a répondu l’artiste sans cesser de pisser, et on a applaudi pour la Corse, et certains venaient même de découvrir pour la première fois ce nom de Corse, ça murmurait, ça polémiquait, et puis un gars plus qu’égaré a demandé qui était le président de la Corse, quel type d’État c’était, quelle était la capitale de ce pays, leur président était-il noir ou blanc, et on l’a envoyé paître en lui criant en chœur “idiot, imbécile” […]”
“Crack, p***y, crack, you’re gonna crack, you don’t even know how to piss, and me, well I’ve still got gallons in my reservoir, I’m warning you, listen up, stop now if you don’t want to look like a fool in front of these bastards, stop now, take your bow now and get out,” Robinette carried on like that, and this guy responded with, “shut up and pee, you old fat hen, a true master doesn’t speak while they work, and I’ll never take that bow, never in my life, it’s you who’ll crack, Robinette, and after that, I’m gonna lay you,” and he pressed his two hairy balls, thereby increasing his outpour by several degrees, and our jaws dropped because this guy, this fucking pretentious guy was now pissing with more conviction, and we all bore witness as his elementary member doubled, no, tripled in size, to the point where we had to rub our eyes in disbelief, and his balls suddenly swelled up, flapping like two old gourds of palm wine, and he pissed with jubilation, and he whistled the songs of the scoundrels of quartier Trois-Cents, then a baroque concert, then a Zao tune in order to draw over the crowd, all while Robinette was really putting her foot down on the gas, farting several times as she worked, to the point where we had to hold our nose and cover our ears because it smelled so bad and resonated like the kind of fireworks you’d hear during the Feast of the Goat, [a reference, as best I can tell, to the book by Mario Vargas Llosa pertaining to the death of the dictator Trujillo] […] and while we all scrutinized the elephantine behind of Robinette, a witness informed us that, on the other side, Casimir who lived the high life was effectuating a watershed of momentous proportions, a miracle that merited papale benediction, and we all stepped over each others toes as we scrambled to get a better look, I mean, one should never miss a miracle even one that’s not sanctioned by the Cathedral of Lourdes, one should strive to witness that which will be told for centuries to come, better to witness this shit first-hand than to listen to people parrot it back to you as a history of love in times of cholera, and so we all huddled around Casimir who lived the high life in order to see his historic miracle, and by jove what we witnessed, I swear we couldn’t believe our eyes, you had to be there to believe it, and as we lived and breathed, with his urine zig-zags, Casimir who lived the high life drew, with finesse, the map of France, his orthodox urine streams falling right in the heart of Paris, “You ain’t seen nothing yet, I could just as easily draw you a map of China and piss squarely on the town of Pekin,” and Robinette, now completely abandoned, turned and threw us a villainous glance, screaming, “Get back over here, I tell you, get the hell back over here, what are you all lookin’ at there, you fuckin’ f*****s,” but it was too late, we were already captivated by this mysterious pretentious competitor whom we were now applauding and who would henceforth be known as Casimir the Geographer, and it must be said, he loved his new nickname, “I’m in it for the marathon, not the sprint, I’m gonna jump you, Robinette, I’m gonna wear you out, believe you me,” he said whilst whistling his scoundrels’ song, then his baroque concert and his Zao tune, and we applauded him more and more while the map of France grew, blossoming into its many regions, but then another tiny sketch formed to the side of this masterstroke, “But wait, hol’ up, what’s that thing he’s drawn off to the side there, next to France, what the hell’s that, huh” demanded one of the audience members, totally lost in Casimir’s art, the art of he who lives the high life, “It’s Corsica, you imbecile,” responded the artist without stopping his flow, and we cheered for Corsica, and there even those among us who heard, for the first time, of this mysterious Corsica, and a murmur spread through the crowd, causing controversy, until at last one lad, who was beyond lost, dared to ask who the president of Corsica was, what kind of state was it, what was their capital, was their president black or white, and we all kicked his ass out of the group to a chorus of, “Idiot, imbecile” […}
Woowee, I tell you what. That’s a quote and a half right there… probably about half the review and its all just one long citation. Eat your hearts out, ENG 101 professors of Earth, I have half a mind to just end this review right now, toute suite, or whatever people say around these parts, without first offering any context.
But I won’t. We’ve got a lot to unpack there: a lot of references to Latin-American literature (Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Márquez? And how!), a lot ironic language, what seems like a reference to How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and a whole, whole lot of pee. But, y’know, at the end of the day, the take away point is this: know your geography, kids. Know your geography or else you too will find yourself ridiculed on the outskirts of a pissing contest when you don’t know where one French island is located.
Corse is, by the way, part of France and they do not have their own president, although they do have their own language in addition to French. Tip o’ the hat to Wikipedia, once again.
That about wraps up our review, thank you for tuning in. I’m giving Verre Cassé eight snowflakes for being a very funny and smart novel, even if you don’t get all the references, you can still enjoy this rare bird for its wit and grit and, at times, literal shit. Alain Mabanckou, while a polemical figure in Africain literature, is definitely worth the read, perhaps even more so given the controversy. Hope you enjoyed this tentative traipse through the rich world of Afro-Franco-Literature, and join me next Wednesday for another review!