Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99)
THE BETTER to position an author on the bookshelves, it’s inevitable that a writer from the global south who catches the attention of readers in Europe and the US is framed by comparisons with dead white males.
It’s a reference point of sorts and Alain Mabanckou (pictured), originally from the Republic of the Congo but now a resident of California, has been variously likened to JD Salinger and Samuel Beckett.
And his latest novel Black Moses, with its humanistic rawness and deployment of its main character and those he encounters as an allegory to describe a whole society, recalls the younger Salman Rushdie but with a less bloated style.
The main protagonist, with his lengthy name of “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors,” doesn’t just carry the burden of the expectations of Papa Moupelo, the orphanage priest who so named him, on his shoulders.
He also personifies a whole country still struggling to throw off its colonial past, overcome divisive tribal rivalries and deliver true national self-determination and liberation.
As such, Black Moses is an account of struggle and disappointment. Moses, far from guiding his people to anything like the promised land, finds himself following and accommodating himself to bigger and more powerful forces.
His name becomes increasingly ironic. Moses is clearly not a leader, just one out of many people struggling to get by.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t try to rebel against the brutish director of the orphanage and the local hoodlums and hard boys in its vast dormitory. But such acts are limited in scope and effect.
The orphanage director Dieudonne Ngoulmoumako is one of those cunning brutes able effortlessly to prosper both under the old regime and the new Marxist government without changing his behaviour or corrupt practices.
Mabanckou shows a succession of authority figures who transcend the efforts at modernising the country and so thwart the noble aims of creating a more just society.
Aside from the kindnesses of the orphanage nurse Sabine Niangui, the institution is a repressive place full of ghouls like old Koukuoba, previously a necrophiliac undertaker.
Moses escapes to Pointe-Noire to become one of a gang of parentless children in the Grand Marche district of the city before the area is cleansed by the zealous mayor Francois Makele ahead of elections.
He achieves some stability in a brothel in the Three Hundreds district run by the formidable Maman Fiat 500. She sets him up as a worker at the port before Moses’s world collapses again as he rebels against wage slavery and the brothel is levelled, again through the directions of a mayor keen to further boost his reputation by targeting non-Congolese sex workers.
Moses retreats to tending his garden but, inevitably, his earlier life experiences catch up with him and he suffers a massive and disturbing mental breakdown, losing both his hold on reality and his memory.
A doctor interested only in showing off his European medical qualifications fails to heal him as does the hocus-pocus of a traditional healer. Driven by his madness, Moses seeks out violent revenge as the only solution to his and society’s parlous state.
Full of raw and vivid dialogue that captures the traumatic impact of neocolonialism on the heart and soul of a whole nation, Black Moses is an impressive work. Recommended.