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from the July 2017 issue

“Black Moses” by Alain Mabanckou

Reviewed by Emily Lever

Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses is the story of the life of a Congolese orphan named Moses. His full name is Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, which means “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors” in Lingala. His grandly prophetic name leads him to a destiny that’s far less linear than that of the original Moses, but just as gripping and fantastical.

Moses enters his teenage years in an orphanage as a government with a pan-African socialist message assumes power in the Republic of Congo. He escapes from the orphanage to wander along with a gang of fellow orphans, and then by himself, on the streets of the city of Pointe-Noire. Throughout the novel, Moses drifts from parental figure to parental figure, including Papa Moupelo, the priest who gives him his “kilometrically extended” name; the school nurse, Sabine Niangui; and a Zairean madam in Pointe-Noire nicknamed Maman Fiat 500.

Moses does his best to live up to his name. Throughout the novel, Moses harkens back to the life story of his biblical namesake, who provides him with a shining example of taking a principled stance against power. The story from the book of Exodus in which Moses kills an Egyptian overseer mistreating a slave, coupled with an understanding of the fundamental principles of socialism, give Mabanckou’s Moses a strong sense of justice.

But Moses doesn’t gain an understanding of socialism from the government propaganda he learns at school or the presidential speeches he is forced to memorize. In fact, his sense of justice persists despite rather than because of his education—an education dispensed by “bruisers with zero intelligence” turned party cadres, who pepper their speech with gratuitous uses of the word “dialectically” and say things like “the superstructure must not be allowed to outweigh the infrastructure” without seeming to understand what this vocabulary means. True to form, Mabanckou serves up his social commentary with a side of humor, satirizing pseudo-Marxist posers who substitute conceptual name-dropping for any type of action that might benefit the people.

As for Moses, he’s the exact opposite of the apparatchiks: he internalizes the spirit rather than the letter of the socialist discourse he is taught. From a young age, he is concerned about people who are more vulnerable than he is and tries to defend them from more powerful people. For example, in the orphanage, he takes revenge on the school bullies who terrorize his friend Kokolo by spiking their food with devastating amounts of chili pepper, which earns him the nickname Little Pepper (the title of the original French-language novel is Petit Piment). Aside from the biblical Moses, Little Pepper’s most important role model is Robin Hood, because he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Moses actually does steal things from the market to hand them out to poor people at the mosque or on the street. Our protagonist is like the humble orphan in a fairytale whose good heart guides him to make good decisions and judge people for who they are rather than their position in society.

The society Moses lives in has nothing to do with fairy tales, though. He’s continually mocked for his collectivist spirit. Black Moses paints a picture of a society where socialism is the official ideology even as it’s not actually implemented anywhere. In a country that was actually socialist, there wouldn’t be hundreds of homeless teenagers wandering in the streets of a major city, subsisting on petty theft and scavenging. Driving poor people out of that city wouldn’t be considered a real solution to poverty. The mayor of that city pledging to “clean it up” by expelling undocumented sex workers would be decried as the cruel demagoguery it is. On a smaller level, a young woman’s life wouldn’t be ruined if a rich married man strung her along, made her believe he would support her, and ditched her when she became pregnant (this is what happened to the mother of Moses’ friend Kokolo).

Yes, by my telling Black Moses sounds like it’s all Dickensian tribulations. But in fact, true to Alain Mabanckou’s freewheeling, irreverent style and to real life, this novel is full of hilarious vignettes. To name just a few, there’s a story straight out of Mabanckou’s polyphonic, Rabelaisian Broken Glass, about a mortician who loves corpses a little too much; a lecherous artist named St. Francis of a Titty; and a comical shouting match between the idiotic president and his idiotic henchmen, which could have been a scene from Dr. Strangelove except it’s about whether the president’s favorite sex worker is seeing other clients behind his back.

This unclassifiable novel contains elements of comedy and tragedy, of realism, naturalism, and magical realism, but it is none of these. It most closely resembles the earliest examples of the novelistic form, dating back to the 1600s. One could say the novel was born pre-deconstructed in the sense that the major early works in the form were far more experimental in terms of style and content than most of the novels most of our contemporaries are producing. From Don Quixote to Tristram Shandy to Jacques the Fatalist, these early novels smashed the Aristotelian unities to bits in an effort to portray life as we experience it: not unified in the least but chaotic, completely disjointed, chronologically nonlinear because we reminisce and forget, a melting pot of every single emotion and every kind of experience. In Black Moses, Mabanckou returns to the very roots of the novel to produce a story that’s too thoroughly modern to concern itself with genre or register. Best of all, he does so effortlessly and without taking pains to point out that he’s being experimental (thus avoiding the pitfall of so much experimental literature that tries to knock the reader over the head with its affected weirdness). This is a novel that’s as entertaining as it is engrossing, and reads as though you were experiencing Moses’s life as your own.

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