The Lights of Pointe-Noire by Alain Mabanckou (tr. Helen Stevenson). The New Press. 202 pages. $23.95.
The Lights of Pointe-Noire, the new memoir by the Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, is bleak, muted, and sometimes evasive. Suffused with guilt and regret, it is an exceptionally sensitive and well-written account of an exile’s return to his homeland. Read it, by all means, but not when you need a pick-me-up.
Mabanckou, born in the Republic of Congo in 1966, is the author of short, darkly comic novels that include Blue-White-Red, African Psycho, Broken Glass, and Memoirs of a Porcupine. Like many of Africa’s major contemporary writers, he has lived and worked elsewhere. The Lights of Pointe-Noire, describes his return to the city of his childhood after an absence of 23 years.
Mabanckou begins his first chapter in words that echo the opening line of Proust’s quasi-autobiographical masterpiece: “For a long time I let people think my mother was still alive.” Even the tone of remembered pain suggests Marcel waiting in vain for his mother’s goodnight kiss.
As if this subject were too painful, the narrative shifts in the first few lines from the personal to the mythic. Mabanckou begins telling us about the “miracle woman” that he and other Congolese children could glimpse in the face of the moon. “Some said her story went back to a time when the Earth and the Sky were always squabbling.” In trying to make sense of his homeland and his relation to it, Mabanckou has gone back to the creation story of his people.
In Pointe-Noire Mabanckou grew up between two worlds. Maman Pauline, his mother, had moved there from the village of Louboulou, “a small town with red earth, that produced corn, and tubers and yams, and bananas, and grazing pigs.” She brought with her a “scary straw-hatted scarecrow” that she hung up behind the bedroom door. Maman Pauline believed it would bring good luck.
In other ways she was a modern woman, happy to dress up and go dancing. “That was the golden age,” she tells her son, “we wore miniskirts and high heels and the men went round in bell-bottomed trousers and Salamander shoes. Pointe-Noire was famous for its atmosphere, and everyone had work.” Yet the good times didn’t last, and Mabanckou remembers her light brown eyes as sad and worried.
Wherever he goes, the author finds the same notes of pain and nostalgia. He returns to the school he attended for three years as a boy and hears the “sentimentalists” say that it has gone downhill in recent years. “It’s all because the blacks are running the lycée now! If the whites were still here they’d have repaired the roof and repainted the walls!”
The school, he discovers, has been renamed for Victor Augagneur, the colonial administrator who press-ganged workers to build a railway line from Brazzaville to Pointe-Noire on the Atlantic Coast. “Over twenty thousand people lost their lives in the gruesome construction of this line, and many more were left mutilated and maimed.” Yet the name of Augagneur has been scrubbed and revived as a symbol of the civilized past.
“There was a general attitude of resignation,” he writes, “which encouraged the previously colonised to imagine that the Negro was essentially lazy, chaotic, careless, and that these shortcomings had undermined the Western way of doing things, which had been guiding our future nations in the right direction.” The ideology of colonialism still has its believers.
When Mabanckou was a student, his school was named for another ideology that swept the Third World with the decline of colonialism, only to fade in its turn. The Lycée Karl Marx taught its students the principles of dialectical materialism, promoted the Russian language, undermined the study of English and Spanish, and helped inflate the reputation of the assassinated president Marien Ngouabi into that of a socialist thinker on the order of Marx and Lenin.
The Cinema Rex, “the building that delivered our dreams,” is still standing when Mabanckou returns, but now it delivers the dogma of The New Jerusalem, one of several evangelical churches that took over the movie theaters of Pointe-Noire in the 1990s. The building’s owner, still regretting his decision to close the cinema, mourns the days when he used to screen Becky Sharp, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the other films of Miriam Hopkins, his favorite actress.
Mabanckou talks with Grand Poupy, a one-time ladies’ man and would-be writer, and offers to help him find a publisher. “Forget it, my boy,” he replies, “I don’t have that tapeworm in my gut that writers have, that eats away at their insides every day. Writing’s hard, but what’s even harder is knowing you’ll never be a writer, living with the idea you might have left something marvellous behind when you go.”
Though friends and relatives remember him, and he is known for his literary works, Mabanckou discovers that he has become a stranger in his own country. “I’m just a black stork,” he thinks in a dark moment, “whose years of wandering now outnumber the years left to him to live.” Yet he and his homeland seem to have followed parallel paths of emotion. Those who stayed at home have the same doubts, regrets, and illusions as those who left.
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa and the editor of African Lives: An Anthology of Memoirs and Autobiographies. His latest book, Thoreau’s Wildflowers, was published by Yale University Press in March 2016.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Ghost Lights by Keith Montesano Centralia, Pennsylvania has been burning for over forty years. A seething, underground mine fire has created a ghost town: decades ago, many residents abandoned their homes, and those who remained faced eviction. Not only weekend entertainment for overanxious undergraduates, the empty town has been elegized in several poems and novels....
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Geoff Wisner