Francophone Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses, out this year in an English translation by Helen Stevenson, is about a boy, then man, whose full name in the Lingala language means “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.”
Despite already having this supreme mouthful of a designation, our main character 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 be interested to know 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.
The story, which covers various periods from Little Pepper’s life, drifts in and out episodically, seeming to circle itself rather than build upon previous events. Late in the book, we find out there’s an explanation for this, but it also works purely as a stylistic choice. The Guardian calls the novel picaresque, and I have no desire to tangle with them, but suffice it to say Black Moses is more like a small, powerful hurricane than a journey over a river or through some woods.
For the first half of the book, Moses doesn’t go much of anywhere. He 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 their beloved priest, Papa Moupelo, who gave Moses his ridiculously long name, and are forced to march to the beat of the school director’s state-sanctioned Marxist ideology.
As a teen, Moses escapes the orphanage with Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala, the same pair of 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 who at some point became enamored of the tales of Robin Hood and attempted 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, being a true-to-name baby in the bulrushes, but his upbringing as well as his adult life are affected 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, a mixed-race woman who essentially raises Moses and Bonaventure at the orphanage, whose eventual dismissal by the director also seems understood to be for reasons related to politics or self-interest within the political machine.
Once in the city, Moses is taken under the wing of Maman Fiat 500, the madam of a brothel. If you think that’s as good as it gets, namewise, here are just a few of the girls who work for Maman Fiat: Georgette “5 a.m. Nutella” Loubondo, Jeanne “Crumbly biscuit” Lobolo, Léonora “Instant decapsulation” Dikamona. Not even to mention that there’s a bistro across from the brothel called Black Angels Have Small Dicks, where prospective clients, out of caution or self-consciousness, sometimes claim to have been headed. Maman Fiat 500 and her girls are eventually victims of an initiative called “Zero Zairian Whores in Pointe-Noire,” which is designed more to target Zairian immigrants than prostitution.
Soon after this, Moses’s perceptions, or at least his narrations, 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,” and that he sees (live) garden gnomes and dinosaurs regularly. Even as he appears to be losing the normal markers of human existence, he seems to be retaining and even developing a sense of resistance and purpose. Finally accused of faking illness by both the psychologist and a traditional healer, he prepares to take matters into his own hands.
Tragedy in Black Moses is a given. It’s not so much an arc as an undramatic stream. The flavorful, heady inner world Moses inhabits, whether it’s a result of his drinking, the sadness around him or just the actual combination of his reality and self, is his map for navigating the flow of this reality and the most reliable guide he has. Black Moses is partially about the pain of losing identities, but it also depicts identity and selfhood as living things 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.)