Alain Mabanckou’s Piquant Picaresque: Black Moses


Francophone Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses, out this year in an English translation by Helen Stevenson, is the story of a man whose full name in the Lingala language means “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.”

Moses also frequently goes by “Little Pepper,” having earned the moniker for taking revenge on a couple of bullies by spiking their food with chili powder. Readers of the translation may find it interesting that this nickname doubles as the original French title of the book, Petit Piment, while the English title borrows from the character’s given name instead. 

Moses grows up in an orphanage in Loango, in the People’s Republic of Congo, with his best friend, Bonaventure. Together, they mourn the likely politically driven disappearance of a beloved priest, Papa Moupelo. In the meantime, they’re forced to march to the beat of their school director’s state-sanctioned Marxist ideology.

Black Moses moves episodically, seeming at times to circle itself rather than building upon previous events. Late in the book, we find out there’s an explanation for this approach, but it works well as a purely stylistic choice. The novel’s picaresque tone lends a lightness to tragic events, and this lightness highlights the absurdity of the events rather than detracting from their sadness.

As a teen, Moses escapes from the orphanage with Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala, the same twin bullies whose food he spiked, who have since accepted him as a partner in crime. The three of them head for the capital, Pointe-Noire. Here, they form a gang and overthrow the reigning rival gang led by Robin the Terrible, a young man enamored of the tales of Robin Hood who attempts to model himself after the folk hero—green hood, bow and all.

Black Moses is a story of names and identities, given and taken on. Moses doesn’t know the specifics of his ethnic or familial origins, but his life is anchored by three main parental figures. These figures, like him, are all marginalized by society, and all disappear with unknown fates. The first is Papa Moupelo. Then there’s Sabine, the mixed-race woman who more or less raises Moses and Bonaventure at the orphanage, and whose dismissal by the director also seems to be politically motivated. Once in the city, Moses is taken under the wing of Maman Fiat 500, the madam of a brothel across from a bistro called Black Angels Have Small Dicks. Maman Fiat 500 and her girls eventually become victims of an initiative labeled “Zero Zairian Whores in Pointe-Noire,” which is designed more to target Zairian immigrants than prostitution.

Soon after this, Moses’s perceptions begin to warp into the fantastical, possibly due to a combination of trauma and alcoholism. When taken to a neuropsychologist, he insists that his memory problems are language-related, caused by a lack of “adverbials.” He claims to see living garden gnomes and dinosaurs regularly. Even as he’s losing the normal markers of human existence, though, he seems to be retaining and further developing a sense of purpose. Accused of faking illness by both the psychologist and a traditional healer, he prepares to take matters into his own hands.

The flavorful inner world Moses inhabits isn’t necessarily stranger than his reality. Whether this world is a result of his drinking, the losses he’s sustained or both, it’s a place where he’s learned to survive. Black Moses is about tragedy and pain, but it’s also about the resilience of the self. It depicts identity not as a fixed point, but as a compound that can be reformulated and resurface in any number of ways.

(Click here to hear the author pronounce the main character’s original name in Lingala: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko.)

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (translated from the French by Helen Stevenson) from The New Press (US) | Serpent’s Tail (UK)
Release date: Out since Spring 2017