Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou opens in the 1970s in an orphanage on the outskirts of Pointe-Noire a port city in the Republic of Congo. Our young protagonist with an incredibly long name but known as Moses (for short) is surprised when Papa Moupelo, a kindly ‘pocket-sized’ priest in elevator heels abruptly disappears. This absence coincides with regime change in the country as the Republic of Congo becomes the People’s Republic of Congo. The introduction of communism and the removal of those people who had an ounce of compassion compels Moses to escape the orphanage. On the streets of Pointe-Noire he joins a gang, helps out the Zairian prostitutes of the Trois-Cents quarter and attempts to evade the authorities out to clean the streets. Struggling to deal with the abuse of power he sees everyday he wears a green hood in honour of his hero Robin Hood. A clear sign of his principles and philosophy but also a possible sign that Moses might be going mad.
The strongest parts of the book have less to do with Moses and his misadventures and more to do with the Congo. In particular the ways communism becomes a handy crutch for those seeking influence and power and the deep-rooted mistrust and tensions between the varied ethnic groups of the Congo. Where the novel left me cold was in its depiction of Moses, especially post orphanage, and his descent into madness. The fact that Moses is narrating his story from within an insane asylum – which is located on the same grounds as the orphanage he escaped – should be a tragic, shattering revelation. And yet it felt on the nose, partly because there’s never much doubt that Moses has a slippery handle of reality. And while I felt some of the anger simmering under the surface, – especially in regard to the daily abuses Moses witnesses – and I noted the pitch-black tone of the humour – there are some funny moments in the orphanage, especially how Moses deals with a pair of bullies – so much of the short novel just slid off me. Which isn’t particularly insightful but as profound as this review is likely to get.
This is my first taste of Mabanckou’s work – who I note has written for over twenty years and is much respected and praised* – so I have no idea if it’s indicative of his wider oeuvre. My thoughts about this novel aside I’m still interested in reading further fiction by him and I suspect that Mabanckou’s 2003 novel African Psycho might be more up my alley.
*While I may not have loved the book I still thank Serpents Tail for translating Mabanckou’s work.