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Alain Mabanckou: Verre Cassé (Broken Glass)

The main character and narrator of this book is called Broken Glass. We do not learn his real name. He spends much of his time in a bar called, simply, Credit. In the opening paragraph, he tells us how the owner of the bar gave him a set of notebooks as he, the owner, wanted Broken Glass to be the repository of the memory of the bar after he, the owner, had gone. Broken Glass is determined to take the notebooks and his own memories of the bar and set out to write a sort of history of the bar. That history is this book. As he says, these are his recollections and he will spare no-one, including the owner. Indeed, he feels that when the owner does read what he has written, he may not be happy with the result.

The book essentially consists of a haphazardly arranged collection of stories concerning the bar, both the bar itself (and its history) but also the stories of its many patrons. It is told in a lively, at times ebullient, oral style. It was originally founded when the owner visited Douala, in Cameroon. Broken Glass is generally quite critical of Cameroon and its inhabitants but, in this case, he mentions the bar that the owner visited in favourable terms. The bar had one significant advantage – it was open twenty four hours a day. He decided to take this model back to Trois-Cents in the Congo and set up a similar bar there. He hired some relatives to help but they spent the time drinking the profits and stealing from him, so he got rid of them and how has two unrelated barmen, one for days and one for nights.

The bar was not welcome by everyone. The local church noticed that its congregation had gone down, for which they blamed the bar. They even said that, because of the bar, their wives no longer cooked for them and respected them as they should. The churchgoers, along with allies from those now on the wagon and some of the non-Christian upholders of traditional values, attacked the bar and destroyed a part of it. This became something of a cause célèbre and even reached the government, with government officials taking sides. When one minister gives a famous speech, using the J’accuse line, making the president envious of the fact that his staff had not come up with the line. This gives Mabanckou the opportunity to viciously mock the government officials and president.

However, much of the book is stories of the patrons of the bar. These stories are often long, convoluted and colourful. There is the story of the man who wears Pampers all the time, who tells his story, about a marriage gone wrong, merely because he liked to visit the prostitutes in the Rex District, which his wife did not approve of and got her revenge, leaving him in his current condition. There is the printer who went to France and married a very attractive white woman but catches her having sex with his son from a previous marriage and has now come back home, claiming to have done France. There is Mouyeké, the fetishist, who runs afoul of a judge. Broken Glass even tells his own story. He is an old man – around sixty – and even the prostitutes reject him till, finally, an ageing prostitute takes him in. We learn about the black van Gogh, a painter who is apparently an unrecognised genius. More particularly, we learn of Broken Glass’s not very successful marriage to Angélique who, like a few of the other men in this book, does not take kindly to his coming home drunk in the early hours of the morning, not least because his drinking costs him his fairly good job as a primary school teacher. Inevitably, by the end of the book, he seems to be spending most of his waking hours at the bar.

I cannot say that this was a great book but it was certainly very colourful, as Mabanckou/Broken Glass runs on non-stop with his lively stories about himself and his fellow patrons of the bar. He throws in lots of references to the situation in the Congo and numerous literary references. Indeed, there are a large amount of book titles or other references to literature, casually thrown into the text, so that it becomes something of a game finding them – from references to Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude) to The Catcher in the Rye to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This may be considered somewhat ironical for a book, which clearly gets its inspiration from the oral tradition.

Publishing history

First published in French 2005 by Editions du Seuil
First English translation by Profile Books in 2009
Translated by Helen Stevenson