Black Moses is the sixth novel by Congolese man of letters and literary award winner Alain Mabanckou. Published in an English translation (from 2015’s original French Petit Piment) in 2017, this has sat on my to-read shelf for a while and the work is already no longer Mabanckou’s most recent novel, having been surpassed (in English translation) in 2020.
Black Moses was long-listed for the 2017 International Booker Prize and tells the story of Moses – nicknamed occasionally ‘Little Pepper’ (hence the French title) – and his life growing up in an orphanage in Loango, a small way north on Congo’s Côte Sauvage from the major coastal town of Pointe-Noire, and then afterwards on the streets of Pointe-Noire itself, during Congo’s Marxist-Leninist revolution from 1969. Life in the orphanage is brutish and marked by casual violence both between the residents (mostly boys; there are girls too although they feature little in the story) and as administered by the director and his warden acolytes. Corruption is rife and shortages are plenty and Moses learns quickly of the need for allies as well as friends if he is to survive; and, as he grows older, those lessons serve him well as he swaps life in the orphanage firstly for the streets of Pointe-Noire, followed by a degree of comfort among a group of immigrant sex workers and work on the docks before, in a situation of rapidly deteriorating mental health in which neither a French-trained psychiatrist nor a traditional healer can help him, he is confronted with an opportunity to try and make a difference.
Reading through this brief summary of the plot, this all looks rather bleak and, while the themes and the conclusions are so, Mabanckou’s skill is to tell his story in a characterful way and with the use of as much colour as is encapsulated by the book’s cover (which, we should note, symbolically embodies the colours of the flag of Congo). Whether it is in the orphanage or on the streets, the sights and the sounds and the colours are vividly real and this ensures that the tale leaps off the page in a vibrant way, despite the tough subject matter and the toughness of Moses’s own life in each of its different stages. Mabanckou is also able to deploy a mischievous humour in the same direction albeit that the use of humour in a novel with these sorts of dark themes requires fine judgment both in getting the reader to the point of realising the urgency of the scenes presented and to accept the reality of the toughness of street life and the choices being exercised. Picaresque it may be but these are also serious themes which humour risks under-playing.
The shift in the title from the French to the English is interesting since it shifts the focus of the book from a potential reminiscence – the book is dedicated to a ‘Little Pepper’ whose stories helped inspire it – and more towards allegory. Here, a little biblical knowledge might be required although, for those without, whether Moses grows up to fulfil his destiny is also covered off in the opening chapter. Regardless, this subtle shift in emphasis occasioned by the title change heightens attention on the novel’s key theme which is that of the impossibility of escaping the life situation into which we are born, particularly in the book’s context of the circumstances of the poverty and oppression in the Congo of the time but, as is likely, given our shared human experience, more widely in other contexts (and country locations) as well. Despite the biblical theme, this is not just a question of the inescapability of destiny, or more correctly the destiny that we feel is imposed upon us, but more particularly the endless circle into which our social situation traps us.
Given the ready availability of an English translation of the original title, changing it thus seems to have been an editorial decision. Mabanckou, a full professor at UCLA, where he teaches literature and creative writing in the Department of French & Francophone Studies and African Studies Center, was surely at least au fait with the decision.
There are clear difficulties in any situation of translating local context into a different language, not least given the colonial aspects. Mabanckou comments – in relation to a previous novel – that he writes in French ‘but with an African accent’; as well as that there are more difficult languages into which to translate than English where anything missing as regards the sense is likely to be no more than ten per cent although there are always cultural aspects which differ. My own instincts tell me here that the shared exploitation of the African continent by the major western European powers may in some respects lessen those cultural aspects while evidently heightening them in others. The translator of Black Moses – Helen Stevenson – has translated Mabanckou before (in respect of a more technically difficult piece of work than this) and comments that the key is giving people a voice, which is not the same as aiming for linguistic equivalence, something which Mabanckou also echoes in his interview linked above.
The second thematic aspect to the novel is the extent to which people growing up in institutions can become institutionalised. Moses – the name is given to him by a priest – is left at the orphanage as a baby and never manages to leave institutional settings for very long. Meanwhile his relationships, few of which are lasting, highlight the abandonment issues which people in such a position frequently experience, along with difficulties in forming attachments, while the few attachments he does manage to form are quite closely linked to the desire for a mother – and, very occasionally, a father – figure in his life. The difficulty with what is quite a short novel (of 200 pages) is that there is not a lot of room for detailed characterisation and, with Mabanckou choosing to focus on the street smarts which Moses learns in the orphanage in the novel’s lengthy opening section (and which were probably critical to his later survival, given his choices), this is under-explored and both Moses’s sensitive, vulnerable side and the later mental health issues come not only as something of a surprise to the reader but appear thus as the rather too visible hand of the author. Either way, they don’t really convince in a context which requires the reader to connect with the main character.
Nevertheless, we have here a well-rounded tale, complete and entire in itself and where all ends are wrapped up (and with substantial pathos at the end) and which has an interesting tale to tell of the difficulties that social and political revolutions face in and, as here, of themselves in making life better for people; as well as of the difficulties people face in escaping their status and, indeed, their destiny. If orphanages were indeed the ‘laboratories of the revolution’ in Congo, Mabanckou is specific that they failed. Regardless, societies of all types need to do more to ensure that people are not trapped by either status or destiny as well as to ensure that all who need it get the help they deserve.