The Lights of Pointe Noire, the latest offering from Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, is an account of Mabanckou’s return to his hometown after twenty-three years abroad. The memoir, originally published in French, has recently been translated into a fluid and beautiful English by Helen Stevenson. In Pointe Noire, Mabanckou attempts to reconnect with his home, his family, and his own sense of place in the world—and his readers are along for the ride. The book moves along fitfully, pausing here and there, bringing the reader into an intimate understanding of Mabanckou’s experience and the nature of homecoming.
The memoir opens in a cloud of shame. During Mabanckou’s many years abroad, his mother died, and he did not come home for the funeral. This visit to Pointe Noire is his first since her death. And so Pointe Noire begins with a universal dance, the back and forth steps of mourning:
My face still bears the scars of her loss. I’m good at covering them over with a coat of fake good humour, but suddenly they’ll show through, my laughter breaks off and she’s back in my thoughts again, the woman I never saw age, never saw die, who, in my most troubled dreams, turns her back on me, so I won’t see her tears. Wherever I find myself in the world, it takes just the cry of a cat alone at night, or the barking of dogs on heat, and I’ll turn my face to the stars . . .
How does one deal with this kind of sorrow, after years spent in exile? Mabanckou equivocates. He dives into a long story from Congolese folklore; he resurfaces with an overview of his early childhood. His father abandoned his mother while she was pregnant; she was a single mother, an entrepreneur, a strong, self-reliant woman. There is much to be said, but Mabanckou’s account of his formative years is claustrophobic. Reading the first chapters of Pointe Noire is like being trapped inside the mind of a frightened child: they are full of stories about his mother’s superstitions, her scary laugh, a scarecrow she kept in the closet to protect her money.
From there, Mabanckou moves into an account of his last visit with his mother, replete with her anger that he is leaving for France, and all the weight of guilt and expectations that he has carried with him for over two decades. Here’s his last conversation with his mother, just before he left for Paris.
"So, you’re off to France, then?" she said again, interrupting my thoughts, which had gone wandering off.
"Well, yes, I . . ."
"Oh, no need to apologise, Adèle was right!"
"My cousin, in Louboulou, the nasty gossip, who said I’d never have a child. I’ve often told you about her . . . I know you don’t like to say her name."
"But I am here! I’m your child!"
"I know, but this cousin also said that I’d probably only have one boy and that he would go off on a long journey, far from me, and I would die alone in a hut like a person who has no family . . . You’re all I have in the world, but did you really love me?"
Mabanckou doesn’t bother to comment on this dialogue. Rather, he lets the reader experience this conversational blow directly. It’s easy to imagine how he felt hearing this as a young man. It’s likewise easy to imagine the hurt behind his mother’s words.
Pointe Noire is broken up into very short chapters, all bearing the stamp of Mabanckou’s immediate experience. In the early chapters, Mabanckou has just arrived in Pointe Noire. He is suffering through a series of tense reunions with his family members, many of whom are furious about his long absence. The narrative here is choppy, evasive. Mabanckou repeatedly interrupts his accounts of these painful reunions by weaving in stories about his childhood, or anecdotes about the town. The effect is one of tight control. He is in a defensive crouch and, for the moment, we are in his hands.
And then, slowly, the narrative loosens up. The worst of the family reunions are behind us and Mabanckou begins to open his eyes and look around. He tells us about his beloved childhood pet and about his favorite uncle. He reminisces about the apples his stepfather used to bring him as a treat:
I owe it to Papa Roger that my childhood was scented with the sweet smell of green apples . . . one of the most exotic fruits to come from the colder regions. As I bit into it, I felt I was sprouting wings that would carry me far away.
Mabanckou walks all over town, examining each stone, each broken-down building, trying desperately to reconstruct his memory of the place. We follow along rather helplessly. Surely Mabanckou’s frantic search for his old haunts will be familiar to anyone, anywhere, who has left home and returned to find an indescribable difference. Mabanckou’s trajectory (from Pointe Noire to Paris to Los Angeles) may be wider in scope than most, the differences harder to bridge, but the essential experience is a universal one.
Finally, as we all do, Mabanckou begins to accept that he will never be able to rediscover the past or locate the hometown he left behind:
I see so many people shrouded in darkness, while all the time I’ve been away the sun has consumed the foundations of my childhood, and it is lost to me, ensnared in memories.
By the second week of his visit, Mabanckou shifts gears. The memoir is no longer a guilty plunge into the self—now it is the story of Pointe Noire. He visits the prostitutes' quarter and devotes a long chapter to the first-person account of one sex worker. He gives another chapter over to a war hero, and still another to the proprietor of the town’s shuttered movie theater. Pointe Noire becomes tangible to us, a part of living history.
The Lights of Pointe Noire is an unusually generous memoir. The book invites the readers in, allowing us to accompany the writer at every stage of his trip home—through Mabanckou’s trepidation, defensiveness, and anxiety, we are there with him. Snapshots of the people and places in the book make Pointe Noire seem close and familiar by the time the memoir ends. Indeed, by the end of the book, which is also the end of Mabanckou’s trip back home, it is hard to say good-bye.