APPROXIMATELY ONE THIRD of the way into Alain Mabanckou’s third novel, the contemporary classic Broken Glass, the eponymous narrator lovingly describes a literal pissing contest between “Robinette, the inconquerable, the piss queen of the town, of the neighborhood,” and the local bar, Credit Gone West, in which most of this novel takes place, and an apparently pompous stranger, commencing with Robinette yelling, “hey you there, strutting about like a barnyard cock, if you can piss longer than me then I’ll let you shag me, any time, any place, free of charge, I give you my word.” The stranger accepts, leading to a lurid, and suspenseful, poetically charged 10-page scene of “urinal combat,” an excretory “miracle deserving of papal beatification,” moreover, the already rather transgressive scene is told with no punctuation, save for commas, in one long, labyrinthine 10-page sentence — no, make that technically one long, 10-page mezzo-phrase that has no official capitalized beginning, and no end defined by a period.
To be more precise, and grammatically “correct,” the novel in its entirety is one long, 160-page mezzo-phrase, comprised of comma-laden lines, paragraphs, monologues, and scenes with no orthodox start, no punctuated conclusion. Nevertheless the novel’s first words skillfully, clearly supply all the data we need:
let’s say the boss of the bar Credit Gone West gave me this notebook to fill, he’s convinced that I — Broken Glass — can turn out a book, because one day, for a laugh, I told him about this famous writer who drank like a fish, and had to be picked up off the street when he got drunk, which shows you should never joke with the boss, he takes everything literally, when he gave me this notebook he said from the start it was only for him, no one else would read it, he didn’t want Credit Gone West just to vanish one day, and added that people in this country have no sense of the importance of memory […]
The above not only provides setting, voice, occasion, and plot (the story of a bar and its patrons), but arguably Mabanckou’s purpose and vision: to make a book about writing, memory, and booze, on its face a seemingly suspect recipe for good fiction. But not here.
Mabanckou is openly interested in formal play and deploys similarly experimental means in his fourth novel, Memoirs of a Porcupine, but in Broken Glass his aims are so voice-driven we quickly forget we’re amid such a sophisticated undertaking. The change is seamless, resulting in a perfectly balanced work of both “high” and “low” art, a novel that relentlessly challenges “normal” modes, all in the service of performing the voice of an amateur writer — a canny move — with a bent for scatological and prurient portraits, and who also happens to be a damn good scribe. The book’s overwhelming style fades as style, per se, as we find ourselves embodying the stoned perspective of Broken Glass, the aging, boozy, denizen of Credit Gone West, in the town of Trois-Cents, in Republic of Congo. Glass becomes our improbable lens on the world, emphasis on improbable.
Critical acclaim, controversy, and much political conversation surrounded Broken Glass upon its first publication in France in 2006. At the time, African literature was framed as overtly anthropological, old guard, politically utilitarian, and, often, in the eyes of Western readers, necessarily embedded within the romantic rhetoric of “redemption narratives.” Broken Glass, however, both the novel and its narrator, appears disarmingly uninterested in redemption, not for its characters, nor for its readers. The book instead is explicitly interested in bar fights, bar talk, and, ultimately, booze, blood, urine, shit, semen, sweat, and water, all of which figure throughout. It’s a book of many streams. Which is to say the novel is interested in tangible life and its fluid components, and its narrator demands that this be a story of people — real life, real people.
This handsome new edition comes with an introduction by Uzodinma Iweala, probably best known for the novel Beasts of No Nation (and the film of that book). Iweala provides context for Broken Glass: “[A] book so irreverent in its approach to the revelation of the African soul, so brutally satirical in its battle against stereotypes of African literary characters’ search for meaning, that upon its first translation into English in 2009, critics could not ignore its ferocious difference.” That difference is important, but a wholly political read threatens to undo Mabanckou’s multilayered achievement. Iweala knows this too well:
To say that a novel whose central protagonist possesses the sole ambition (besides writing his stories) to get and remain drunk is more about Africa than the bottles of wine soaking its pages is to be willfully consumed by structural stereotypes. […] Broken Glass is a novel about addiction, but it moves beyond typologies to examine addiction’s core.
And yet for all its “bottle worship” and ruthless portrayals of addiction, Broken Glass is not, in the end, without its own rough redemption. Nor is it without a beating heart. The novel’s “hydrographic detail” extends beyond its supremely convincing stream-of-consciousness style, beyond its deliberate fixation on mortal fluids, and toward the novel’s defining image, a nearby river. “I really hate this river,” Broken Glass laments, “it’s a lagoon of death, the cause of all my grief, the reason for my anger, my irritation, I would love to get back at this river, to tell it to give back my mother’s soul, which it swallowed up one day, a day of deepest silence, but I don’t want to talk about that chapter of my life just now, I’ll come to it a bit later.” Like our best writers, Glass tells the stories of others in order to know his own.
Broken Glass has a loud and living voice, an almost overwhelmingly singular style masterfully translated with dedicated consistency by Helen Stevenson, with fireworks on every page, and expertly navigates its many unapologetically human projects. It casts a bright, honest light on its subjects, and asks questions that are democratic, serious, and perilous for those in power: Whose stories are worth telling? And who gets to tell those stories? All of this even as Mabanckou beautifully, subtly, sadly, and, yes, redemptively tells the story of a narrator grieving from the bottom of a bottle. The book is profoundly literary, bouncingly readable, funny, heartbreaking, obscene, fierce, and restorative. It’s a book of love, really. Tough love. What more could you want from a masterpiece?
Scott Cheshire is the author of High as the Horses’ Bridles (Henry Holt). His work has been published in AGNI, Electric Literature, Guernica, Harper’s, One Story, and the Picador Book of Men. He lives in New York City.