Alain Mabanckou's Broken Glass

A Review of Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass

Book: Broken Glass

Author: Alain Mabanckou

Translator: Helen Stevenson

Publisher: Serpents Tail

Year of publication: 2005 (French), 2009 ( English)

Number of pages: 165

Broken Glass is a book by Alain Mabanckou an author from the Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville) who has written a raft of books including African Psycho (2003 French, 2009 English), Memoirs of a Porcupine, (2006 French, English 2007) and many many more. That guy has some of the best output you can get for books around since his first book in 1998. As you can tell, this author writes in French and then his books are translated by kind folks for those of us who cannot understand the other African language.

Broken Glass is a gentleman who is a regular at the Credit Gone West pub in Brazzaville who is challenged by its owner Stubborn Snail to write a story about his favourite haunt. Stubborn Snail had to work to set up the pub and he feels that Broken Glass is up to the task of immortalising it.

Broken Glass goes about his task with gusto as he talks about the challenges that the pub went through to get to be a running enterprise. Stubborn Snail got the idea of the pub when he was in Douala, Cameroon and he decided that he wants to try something in his hometown. As soon as he opens for business the drama begins; it is alleged that men are being stolen from their homes by this new place. Thus a long battle with the community from the women to the church and the battle goes all the way to the head of state. The leadership eventually gives the pub the right to run because “the minister accuses and the president understands.” Its a part of the narrative you need to read; I won’t ruin it for you.
The story then goes on to explain the story of people like guy who wears Pampers all the time, the guy who lived in France aka the Printer, and crazy Diabolica. The writer even goes as far as to give his tale as a teacher who was fired because of his alcoholic tendency and the battle his wife went through to get him to leave Credit Gone West. She gave her best even going as far as taking him to a witchdoctor but he would not leave his beloved bar won. In a nutshell, it is a story of bar.

I loved this book. A hell of a lot. Let’s start with what I didn’t like though. In the whole 165 pages, you will not encounter one single full stop. None. I kid you not. You might think that this is simple but after running out of mental breath I was forced to learn how to get my own full stops. Eventually, I got in the flow and got over my punctuation hang-up.

Even without the full stops, when you get into the system this is a great book to read. The thing is that even with the amount of time my contemporaries spend in bars there is very little in popular culture about the whole process. There was that old TV show Cheers with that Ted Tanson and Shelley Chambers that showed a US city bar that I can compare that with. Or that column in the Nairobian newspaper quarter pager. Then there is the weekly pub review that I give for the Star newspaper in my Nairobi Living column.

Apart from these little spaces, there are very few stories told about the experience of drinking and this Mabanckou guy gets the description of our drinking lives in this little masterpiece.

Yes. That prose. It’s like eating some delicious little titbits of heaven and you can find these throughout the book. In fact, if you take the challenge you can find titles of over 170 titles of classic literature in it; I didn’t do it so my experience was just the sweet prose.

Then there are his characters. This guy forms these wholly flawed men and women and he makes you empathise with them deeply. These are some of the best characters that I have seen on recent times.

Did I forget to mention this book is hella hilarious? It is. Very much.

What’s even crazier is that the book is translated. While I recognise the skill of Helen Stevenson in bringing this book to life I am a bit jealous of those who can read them in the original. It must be off the hook!

So do I recommend that you buy the book? Hell year. I got my copy at Bookstop Nairobi. If you can’t get it at your local bookstore then try Amazon. You will not regret it.


4 responses to “A Review of Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass”

  1. John avatar

    James I loved this book so much as well. Mabanckou is a rare talent, his sense of humour is out of this world, especially that pissing contest. I have a problem though with your assessment about the lack of full stops. This is the kind of talk that annoys me. James you’re supposedly a person well schooled in literature, and I’m saying this to you because I have had to debate with some good literature people about this run-on sentence business and honestly it makes me rage with madness. Mabanckou was being experimental. It worked for me. is Mabanckou the first writer to make spare use of full stops? We have like a whole I don’t know five pages of Sebald’s Austerlitz where there’s just commas, we have Joyce’s yesses in Ulysses which happen in a space where there’s not even these commas. Allow writers the liberty to be mischievous. Honestly I am sick and tired of neat stories, the stories editors force especially us African writers to do. Boring stories that look like the “armchairs” a character in Rachel Cusk’s novel uses to describe his father and mother-in-laws. Typical well behaved African novels. Well behaved African writers. Full stops. Paragraphs. Jesus Christ! In the end there’s no story, nothing interesting, nothing new, only a set of well punctuated sentences, and paragraphs…

    God did not invent the full stop. We did. We also invented the comma. If you’re breathless when reading a story, it’s your fault. Don’t blame the writer.

    1. murua avatar

      First off, thanks for commenting on my blog. Now, full stops. They are there for a reason; to help the reader in the process of getting through the text. Some of us have a reading habit that includes taking mental breaths that are prompted by these full stops. When you read a long paragraph without one, the writer has to be to very good at his craft to make it work. In the first few pages I had to get my own breaks which was something I rarely need to do with great prose. When I got the gist of the experiment I rolled with the flow and loved the book. This is one of the best books I have read this year but it took a few pages to get on board. Don’t you think that the person reading this review wants to get this when they read it?

  2. john avatar

    Like I said James, these are personal reading habits. I did not have any problem with Mabanckou right from the first paragraph by the way. As a matter of fact I usually find full stops to be a bit heavy. If you’re using the third person, then, I think, it’s appropriate to fill your prose with full stop land mines. But if you’re using the first person, that sweet conversational prose, I think it’s best to go for commas and semi colons and ellipses. Full stops create unnecessary drama. They make the rhythm seem contrived, essayistic even. A good tone, I believe, is somewhere between breathlessness. Now of course I know you may want to disagree, even vehemently, considering there is a good deal of stories out there in a sweet conversational tone that have so many full stops. I know. For instance Wittgenstein’s Mistress is written in short declarative sentences and that worked like magic too. And yet a good number of editors didn’t seem to get it (the book is probably famous for being rejected so many times), all I’m saying is that the writer cannot take blame for his readers’ shortcomings. Literature, as far as I’m concerned, should always try to experiment with form. The problem we have is that we always praise writers for being “unpretentious” while executing their art, meaning we want them to be as simple as possible, yet everyone else (and I’m stealing this point by the way from a so-called William Gaddis authority) every other facet of life is praised for its difficulty. A writer is thus forced to behave within all these terrible narrow rules of writing. In the end writing is no longer an art but something smaller (because, as far as I’m concerned, if you can’t use your imagination to the fullest, what you’re participating in cannot be called art; it’s something else).

    You and me have the experience of being inside a Kenyan classroom, now tell me: how much of what the language and literature teacher said remains true? To your English teacher, is a book like A Clockwork Orange a possibility? Remember the embarrassment the Nigerian Expats suffered when A Palm Wine Drinkard was published?

    I think a good story should balance between the message and the art. Let me be controversial, look at the Caine Prize Shortlist this year, while I LOVE what the beautiful Zambian lady did with THE SACK (my goodness she’s simply great! I hope she wins. I had never heard of her before but after finishing her little masterpiece I was like who is this wonderful person?) I’m completely dumbfounded by a story that ended there as well. No message. No art. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. There’s a writer called Abdul Adan I believe, fantastic writer, I hoped his LIFEBLOOM GIFT was a worthy contender, you read the story and you recognize the effort the writer put in this story. But this story that made the shortlist mpaka unajiuliza aii kweli? Clifton Gachagua’s reminded me of Edgar Poe, well done, hata hii haikuwa na chance, seriously?

    Anyway James, I know you will disagree. I will disagree. Someone else will disagree. So, all this has been hopeless really.

  3. murua avatar

    A review is by nature very subjective thus my opinion on what I loved and didn’t love about the book. The reality for me is that the way it was presented was intially unlike anything I have read even in my 8-4-4 education days. However, this book made my day when I got over my hangups as proscribed by my training and previous reading. It has expanded for me what literature can be.
    You will notice that the tag line for this blog is “Exploring African Literature.” I didn’t used to read books by African authors for many years and I am currently rediscovering that many of the writers in this rock can do the same as other writers from other parts of the world. Many times even better. Thus this one was a new experience for me. I didn’t like first taste of Tusker for instance because of what I considered its bitter taste but I love it now. The same applies to this writer; I didn’t like the first taste but I am currently reading two of his other books. And loving them. The game is about living and learning. I am doing the same with this review and others.

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