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Alain Mabanckou: Lumières de Pointe-Noire (The Lights of Pointe-Noire)

This book is called a novel but it is clearly a not very fictionalised autobiography. It is not the first autobiography Mabanckou has written, which he has called a novel. Demain j’aurai vingt ans (Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty), written three years earlier, is also a fictionalised autobiography and, indeed, is mentioned in this book, particularly by the narrator’s half-brother, Yves Gaston, who appears in both books. The basis for this novel is the narrator’s return to the Congo, twenty-six years after he first left. He has come for a literary conference but the focus of the novel is about his extended family – how they were then and how they are now. In particular, it is about his mourning for his mother, Pauline, and, to a lesser degree, his stepfather, Roger.

Indeed, we start with sorcery and witchcraft, as his mother may have descended from a witch. If not, at least some witchcraft took place in Louboulou, the village from which the family came and now the family name. During an earlier period, an older, handicapped woman had forecast drought and she turned out to be right. There was extensive drought and the people were starving. Clearly, someone was to blame, someone whose presence had put a curse on the village. Equally, clearly that old woman was the culprit. Equally, clearly, the only solution was to sacrifice the culprit. She gave herself up willingly and was, indeed, sacrificed and the drought ended. The narrator feels that his mother would have behaved the same way.

The narrator was Pauline’s only child. His biological father disappeared before he was born. Pauline had moved in with Roger. Roger already had a common-law wife, Martine, and seven children and he spent one night with one family and another with the other. Fortunately, both women seemed to get on. Roger was the receptionist at a local hotel, a fairly good job, not least because the owner left him in charge when she went off to France for her annual holidays. His custom was to collect up the various French newspapers at the hotel and bring them home to read in the evening, complaining all the time that the French ignored his country, as it was it was so small. However, things changed, when it was realised that Roger was seeing a still younger woman. He started staying away from both his homes and seeing a woman called Celestine. Eventually, the children, led by Yves Gaston, the eldest of Martine’s family, decided to take a delegation to see Celestine and warn her off. This is one of the very many amusing stories in this book, as it turns out that Celestine is a tough woman, clearly older than Pauline and not much younger than Martine and quite prepared to tell the children why their father likes her.

The book essentially consists of stories about the extended family though, obviously more particularly his immediate family. We learn a lot about the local culture, from the bogeyman to funeral rites to the woman who is convinced that when her time has come, a rich white woman will lead her to heaven. We learn about Roger’s problems, his job and how, when Pauline seems to have an admirer, he reacts quite violently. We hear about how a local soothsayer forecast that Pauline would never have any children but, if she did, she would have a son, who would be far away when she was dying, which turned out to be the case. (The narrator feels quite guilty about this.) We learn how Pauline’s extended family gradually move to the neighbourhood where she has set up, so much so that they successfully petition the local authority to change the street name to Louboulou Street. We also learn about the narrator’s childhood and his relationship with his mother, a strong but loving woman. He felt very left out at being an only child and invents a host of sisters, all of whom are abroad but who drive expensive cars and will certainly give him a ride in one when they come and visit. His schoolfriends are impressed.

We do also see some of the present. The narrator has to deal with his mother’s property, which has its complications. His half-brothers and half-sisters are after him to give them money, while at the conference Yves Gaston, drunk as usual, behaves badly. We learn about the civil war and the politics of oil and how eating animals is often considered bad, as they may have the spirits of your ancestors in them. We follow the narrator, as he counsels young writers, giving him an excuse to show us the highlights of Congolese literature. In short, this is something of a mixed but nevertheless interesting bag of autobiography, maternal homage, lively stories, local colour, an introduction to a culture about which most readers will know little and how essential but, at the same time, awful families can be.

Publishing history

First published in French 2002 by Editions du Seuil
First published in English by Profile Books in 2015
Translated by Helen Stevenson