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I have decided to kill Germaine on December 29. So begins a chilling tale of murder by Congolese author Alain Mabanckou. The story is set in the Congo, in a town called He-Who Drinks-Water-Is-An Idiot. The narrator, Gregoire Nakobomayo, known as Greg, is an orphan, in the patois of the novel, a -picked-up child, meaning that he was abandoned by his parents. Despite the good intentions of a series of middle class foster parents, and despite receiving a good education, Greg is psychopathic, wanting nothing more than to emulate the crimes of the mythical criminal, Angoualima. Angoualima is not an ordinary man and his are not ordinary crimes. Angoualima has mysterious powers that allow him to appear and disappear at will. He has two faces, two sets of sensory organs, two sets of genitals so that he can violate two victims at once. He even has shoes that are made in a reverse pattern so that as he walks away from his crimes he leaves a set of footprints that appear to be walking towards it. Angoualima visits horrible indignities on his victims, something Greg admires intensely. Greg's life becomes dedicated to committing a crime worthy of Angoualima's respect.
The novel is mercifully brief. Told as a first person narrative, it recounts Greg's musings on the whores who stalk He-Who Drinks-Water-Is-An Idiot, his day-to-day life as a repairer of beaten up cars, and of his plan to murder Germaine. Mabanckou dispenses with the convention that a novel needs one character the reader can empathise with; this novel has none. Greg shows not an ounce of humanity. In the few passage where Mabanckou has him suggest some finer feeling, even as a possibility, the suggestion is so hollow it serves only to underline his vulgarity. Repulsive as Greg's character is, what of the novel? Any novel that uses such graphic depictions of violence and degradation must earn the right to offend the reader's sensibilities or be dismissed as pornography. African Psycho is certainly a compelling read for more than its lurid content. Greg is a believable character, although some may feel that reasoning his way to psychopathy at a precociously early age is rather implausible. He is a little like Grass's Oscar in The Tin Drum, a vehicle for the story's themes but only at the cost of being less than a full character, a mere vehicle for the expression of the author's ideas. The Tin Drum, however, has other characters; African Psycho does not. And yet African Psycho is more than just the memoir of an almost comically inept psychopath.
Mabanckou writes with admirable power and economy. African Psycho is compulsive reading, with the ghost of Angoualima a grotesque and menacing presence long after he is dead and buried. If there is a redeeming feature of Greg it is that he is incompetent in the execution of his grisly plans. When it comes to realizing his ideals as an inheritor of Angoualima's mantle he is exposed as a fantasist, all mouth and trousers, as the English would say. Perhaps not all, but beside Angoualima he is a pathetic pretender. There is a strand of humor in the story that suggests that Mabanckou is not all serious. A televised interview with a man who claims to have seen Angoualima begins as a breathlessly credulous series of ludicrous claims, each finished with the plea "trust me!" The interview becomes almost surreal, descending into farce with the interviewer increasingly distracted by which camera the interviewee should be looking at. There is a lot of satirical reference to Congolese politics, and deference to the political figures to Europe. The fetid river that cuts He-Who Drinks-Water-Is-An Idiot in two is re-named the Seine; public officials are seen only as clients of the prostitutes who walk One-Hundred-Francs-Only Street.
About a year ago I read in the New Yorker a short story set in Rwanda. The story described the slaughter of a family by their own members, tormented and intimidated by supporters of rival peoples who had lost all touch with their humanity. The story was the more disturbing because the characters had loved the people they attacked, they may even have loved them still. Even more, the corruption of their humanity was rendered believable, if truly awful. Mabanckou offers no such consolation, if there can be consolation in calculated murder. No doubt Mabanckou's intent is to offer no refuge that allows us to understand or sympathise with Greg. We just have to accept him as given.
The name of the book African Psycho, invites comparisons with the US novel American Psycho. They couldn't be more different. Greg is simply not up to a series of murders and the slick evasions of American Psycho. Mabacko's novel is unlikely to be optioned for film either, as interior monologue on film is about as interesting as interior decorating. Mabacko has been cited by the French publishing trade journal Lire as one of the 50 writers to watch out for this century. He currently works a Professor of Literature at UCLA, and will be a Fellow in the Humanities Council at Princeton University 2007-8. American Psycho is the first of three books to be translated into English. Whether it proves to be the best introduction to a writer new to English language readers remains to be seen.
© 2007 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: [email protected]
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