Alain Mabanckou: Les Petits-fils nègres de Vercingétorix (The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix)
The introduction says that the publisher has received a manuscript called Les Petits-fils nègres de Vercingétorix [The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix] from Hortense Iloki. They start by telling us that Hortense is from the wittily but not very subtly named Vietongo, a former French colony in central Africa. The political capital is Mapapouville and the commercial capital Pointe-Rouge. (Assuming that this is based on Mabanckou’s home country of the Republic Congo, which seems highly likely, these are equivalent to Brazzavile and Pointe-Noire.) This is confirmed by the statement that Mapapouville was the capital of French Equatorial Africa, i.e. the French colony in which the current Republic of Congo was located, as Brazzaville was the capital of French Equatorial Africa in real life.) The current president is General Edou, presumably based on Denis Sassou Nguesso. He belongs to the Northists who are a minority, though they rule the country. As we shall see, this is important for this novel, not least because, as Hortense tells us, she is a Northist and her husband, Kimbembé, a Southist.
The opening part of the novel tells of how Hortense escapes from the village, where she lives, with her daughter, Maribé. As she is from the North, she is very concerned about her safety and the safety of her daughter. Les Petits-fils nègres de Vercingétorix [The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix], a Southist guerrilla group, has been very active in the village and Kimbembé has been involved. Her best friend in the village is Christiane. She is a Southist but her husband, Gaston, a Northist. One night, some of the guerrillas come to their house. They beat up Gaston and then take hime away. She has not seen him since. She tries to stand up to them but they hit her and warn that they will return. They do return the next night and five of them rape her. It is she that advises Hortense to leave. Hortense is planning to go to Pointe-Rouge but Christiane, who is from there originally, advises her to go to the small town of Louboulou, where she will avoid the guerrillas.
At this early stage in the novel, it looks as though much of the story will concern the flight of Hortense and Maribé. This turns out not to be the case. They have a somewhat troublesome journey to Louboulou and then stay there with Mam’Soko, the widow of a chief. Much of the rest of the book tells the various stories of Hortense and Kimbembé, Christiane and Gaston and Mam’Soko, as well as some of the background to the political situation, in particular the Okonongo Affair. Both couples are clearly some sort of models, as both involve one partner from the North and the other from the South. In both cases, there is clear resentment by family members, friends and colleagues and others of the relationship but both couples surmount this resentment and, till the civil war, manage well. Christiane, for example, has come top in the postal exams in her area and has a good career as a postal official, while Gaston has a good job as a civil servant in the public works field. Kimbembé is a teacher – he first met Hortense when he taught her at school (he is quite a bit older than her) and helped her with her exams, which she had failed, due to poor teaching, till he arrived on the scene. She had planned to go to university but gave up the idea when she had Maribé.
The civil war changes everything. Prejudice against people from other regions increases. Kimbembé’s late nights with the Les Petits-fils nègres de Vercingétorix [The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix] brings an end to their family life. However, the key event is the Okonongo Affair. The current president, Edou, had lost the election to a man from the South, Lebou Kabouya, and had gone into exile. He returns and travels to Okonongo, in the North, which happens to be the home region of the Minister of the Interior, who, though from the North, was in the current, primarily Southist government. He does it to stir up trouble and is successful, which eventually leads to his armed takeover of the country. This, inevitably, cases a backlash, with the Petits-fils and others fighting back.
Mabanckou is clearly aiming to show two things. Firstly, the North and South should work together and not be prejudiced against one another. Secondly, before the civil war, when there was a democratically elected government, people could get on with their lives and lead normal, happy lives, which they can no longer do. In that respect, the book is successful. Mabanckou makes his point. However, as a novel, I feel it is less successful. He sets us up with the idea of the escape to freedom of Hortense and Maribé and more or less drops the idea. Though we do learn a bit more about what happens, it is very much secondary. He also seems to tell his story backward, as we learn about the current situation, seem to be moving forward and then suddenly jump back and then further back. Only at the end do we learn about Vercingetorix, who he is (prime minister under Lebou Kabouya) and why he is named after a Gaulish chieftain.
First published in French 2002 by Editions du Seuil
First English translation by Indiana University Press in 2019
Translated by Bill Johnston