Published in the Sunday Times
Alain Mabanckou (Serpent’s Tail)
The cliché that comes to mind after reading Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses is “better late than never”, because I had previously never heard of him or his works. And I’m glad that I’m tardy to the party rather than never having cracked an invite at all. The novel, which made the Man Booker longlist, is a delicious read – even if its premise is a tragic one.
The Black Moses of the title is a boy who was named by a priest, Papa Moupelo, when he was a child in an oppressive orphanage. His full name is actually a sentence: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, or “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.” While this name might seem almost ridiculous, Moses tries to live up to its meaning – as someone who will lead the lost out of the proverbial desert.
But after Papa Moupelo is plucked from his life and a Marxist-Leninist revolution erupts in 1970s Democratic Republic of Congo, Moses joins a street gang and reinvents himself as Little Pepper, before eventually appointing himself Robin Hood.
Black Moses shows a character at various stages of their life in what feels like a series of screen grabs. That’s not a criticism – it’s one of the things I love about it.
Mabanckou is a delightful writer whose long sentences (much like Moses’ name) are pretty rather than pretentious. Even when he writes about Moses’ descent into madness, it’s hard not to find pleasure in its description, as tragic as the subject matter is.
Example: “My memory problems affected my gait and I started to walk in zigzags because it completely slipped my mind that the shortest route from one point to another is a straight line, which is why, as they say around here, drunkards always come home late.”
If writing really is like dancing as Zadie Smith said, then Black Moses is a literary tap dance.
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- Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou
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