Alain Mabanckou left Congo in 1989, at the age of twenty-two, not to return until a quarter of a century later. When he finally came back to Pointe-Noire, a bustling port town on the Congo’s southwestern coast, he found a country that in some ways had changed beyond recognition: The cinema where, as a child, Mabanckou gorged on glamorous American culture had become a Pentecostal church, and his secondary school has been renamed in honor of a previously despised colonial ruler.
But many things remain unchanged, not least the swirling mythology of Congolese culture that still informs everyday life in Pointe-Noire. Now a decorated writer and an esteemed professor at UCLA, Mabanckou finds he can only look on as an outsider in the place where he grew up. As he delves into his childhood, into the life of his departed mother, and into the strange mix of belonging and absence that informs his return to the Republic of the Congo, his work recalls the writing of V. S. Naipaul and André Aciman, offering a startlingly fresh perspective on the pain of exile, the ghosts of memory, and the paths we take back home.
Grand Prize Winner at the 2015 French Voices Awards
“This is a beautiful book, the past hauntingly reentered, the present truthfully faced, and the translation rises gorgeously to the challenge.” —Salman Rushdie
“A tender, poetic chronicle of an exile’s return.” —Kirkus Reviews
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The miracle woman
For a long time I let people think my mother was still alive. I'm going to make a big effort, now, to set the record straight, to try to distance myself from this lie, which has only served to postpone my mourning. My face still bears the scars of her loss. I'm good at covering them over with a coat of fake good humour, but suddenly they'll show through, my laughter breaks off and she's back in my thoughts again, the woman I never saw age, never saw die, who, in my most troubled dreams, turns her back on me, so I won't see her tears. Wherever I find myself in the world, it takes just the cry of a cat alone at night, or the barking of dogs on heat, and I'll turn my face to the stars, recalling a tale from my childhood, of the old woman we thought we could see in the moon, carrying a heavy basket on her head. We kids would point her out just with a tilt of the nose, a lift of the chin, convinced we mustn't point at her or utter the slightest sound, or we'd wake next morning and find we'd been struck deaf or blind, or even with elephantitis or leprosy. We knew, of course, that the miracle woman had no quarrel with children and that the dread diseases she could inflict on peeping toms were punishments reserved for adults who tried to glimpse her naked when she went for a swim up there in the river of clouds. These perverts were encouraged by a handful of charlatans who said that if you saw the old woman without her clothes on it brought blessings on your business and good luck in your everyday life. Now we never really expected things to go all that well, which is probably why we closed our eyes, lying there in the damp grass, so she wouldn't think we were after the same thing as the grown-ups. She must have had a good laugh to herself up there, reading our innermost thoughts and detecting our every movement, thanks to her perfect ear. She'd turn around, look left, look right, then vanish the second we lay down on our stomachs and pretended to be asleep. We knew she was close by, she was watching us, and maybe she too enjoyed the game, which to us was a bit like hide-and-seek.
Then she'd reappear, we'd see her now, side on, like a shadow puppet, wrapped in layers of dense cloud. We watched her slow progression, transfixed, as a shower of shooting stars fell from her basket, like a firework display to launch the evening drum roll across the land. At that very moment I expect a child was being born somewhere, not knowing it owed its life to this woman, bent double by her penance, but guarantor of all life here below. And at the same time, as a calm fell upon the vault of heaven and at last the moon left the sky, a handful of stars suddenly switched off like lights, as though they'd been hit by bullets from the gun of a hunter standing behind us. We looked at each other, sadly. Someone, somewhere, had died. We knelt down, chin to chest, and mumbled: 'May his soul rest in peace ...'
Who was this nomad of the nights of full moon, whose face no man or woman had ever seen? Some said her story went back to a time when the Earth and the Sky were always squabbling. The Earth said the Sky was faithless and fickle, had mood swings, yelled and roared, while the Sky said the Earth was mindless and dull. God was required to judge between them, and sided with the Sky, since He lived there. And so the miracle woman laid down her life, and took upon herself the sins born of the heedlessness of man. Through this act, she averted a disaster that would have brought about the extermination of the entire human race. During the season before this sacrifice of propitiation, famine and drought on an unprecedented scale came to several villages in the southern Congo. The animals were dying off and so much of the flora vanished that even the most optimistic sorcerers began to predict, within the next quarter-year, the disappearance of the Mayombe forest and the implacable advance of the desert, in which all would perish. That year, bush meat was a distant memory. People ate anything, just to survive, and some villagers made fortunes trading lizards, lightning bugs, ants, beetles, flies and mosquitoes. Within two months these all-invading creatures had completely vanished. There was a rumour that in certain tribes, when someone died, they fought over the body to be sure of at least one whole week of food.
The destruction of our land was foretold by a blind enchantress with a rasping voice and two crippled legs, who shuffled around on her butt. She revealed that the very hands of Time would forget our district, that in the coming days they would stop at midnight, and people would wake on the morning of that terrible moment to a new order of existence: scarcity, or complete absence of water, increased incidence of mirages, sandstorms and deadly heat waves. At first no one took these predictions very seriously. Everyone just said the blind and crippled sorceress was a victim of her own delusions, how else could you explain that each night she'd sell bananas, in front of her property, and though no one ever bought them, they still all disappeared? Where did she find them, when the desert had devoured over half the southern territory? She had more and more customers every day, but where did they all come from? This was in fact the start of the illusions; the sorceress's wares were the fruit of people's imagination.
A week after what became known as 'the Announcement', the first signs of the end of time began to appear. The birds had gone from the sky, leaving an empty abyss, a sign of a divine anger which even the cleverest sorcerers, powerless in the face of their panoply of limp, unresponsive amulets, could not fathom. These sages came together in a plenary session and took a decision that caused a general uproar: a woman must be 'handed over' to appease the divine wrath, and take on her own head the burden of human sin. According to this august assembly, men did not possess this redeeming power, God had only given it to women. The women took this verdict as an insult, and most of the young women shrank from the idea, saying their job was to ensure the line of descent. So that left only the older women. But they said, just because they had reached the twilight of their existence didn't mean they must accept a sacrifice devised for them by a bunch of old guys using their so-called knowledge of the world of darkness to camouflage their own cowardice. What did they stand to gain, anyway, their lives were nearly over, why should they sacrifice themselves for a happiness they'd never see? While the men and women were arguing it out, the situation got worse. The desert had by now absorbed a good part of the Mayombe forest and was heading off at full pelt towards the country's heartland. Seeing the country was in a state of breakdown, the miracle woman came down from her cabin perched up on the mountain top, and turned up uninvited in front of the wise men. On the night of a full moon, four sages from the village of Louboulou, and all its sorcerers, dragged her off, far away, into what was still left of the bush. Her hands were tied behind her back with strands of creeper. To some she was a scapegoat, to some a victim who died for the sins of others. They treated her roughly and abused her, which showed how deep was the community's belief that she had caused all the bad luck that had hit the region. No longer just a willing sacrifice, she was now truly guilty, and had given herself up, and in some people's eyes that was sufficient, they grabbed their whips, gritted their teeth, and lashed her. Stoically, she stood firm, and walked her Way of the Cross.
In time they came to a waterhole, though it was so small it would probably dry up in a few hours. The moon was full, just brushing the tops of the drought-withered trees. The Eye in the Sky had decided to witness this settling of human scores, so it shed its light upon the scene, until one of the sorcerers, in a quavering voice, began to read out the accusation, decreeing that in the public interest the old woman must live inside the luminous disc from now on and carry a basket on her head till the end of time; unprotesting, the sacrificed woman knelt down in the middle of the waterhole, her hands still bound, and raised her head to the sky. She made not a sound as one of the sorcerers stepped forward with a knife raised above his head. A deathly silence fell, as the sorcerer, with one single, swift and decisive movement, slit the woman's throat. At once the moon vanished, and did not reappear until the following month, with this time, trapped inside it, an old woman carrying a basket on her head. The southerners were amazed at the sight.
It was decreed that the first Friday of every new year should be the festival of the Sacrifice, when homage would be paid to the old woman. The birds reappeared in our sky, rain fell for a whole week, the harvest brought forth fruit once more, the rivers ran high and teemed with fish, and the animals went forth and multiplied till the bush was crawling with every imaginable species ...
I'm grown up now, but belief remains intact, protected by a kind of reverence that resists the lure of Reason. And returning to my roots after twenty-three years away, I feel my faith more than ever. At every full moon anxiety takes hold of me, and pulls me out of doors. Everywhere I see the outline of things, like shadows watching me, surprised to see I'm not paying homage to the miracle woman. And I look up at the sky and I think that maybe the old bohemian has found eternal rest and been replaced by another woman, a bit younger than her, the woman I know best and who would have accepted the sacrifice too, the woman who brought me into the world, Pauline Kengué, who, I will say it, and write it now, to clear up any confusion, died in 1995 ...
The woman from nowhere
My mother left me with the enduring memory of her light brown eyes. I had to peer down deep into those eyes to catch sight of her worries; she had a way of keeping them from me, through a sudden contraction of her pupils. For her it was a defensive impulse, and for me was one explanation, among others, for why I felt that throughout my childhood she never looked me straight in the eye. I mistrusted her sudden joyful outbursts, which, deep down, concealed her sorrows, and presented me with a distorted image of my mother, as someone well armoured against the frustrations of daily life. I tried to see her more cowardly actions as the sign of inner suffering, but each time I came up against the same mask of serenity she wore every day of her brief existence. It would have been the height of dishonour for her to show me her vulnerability. In almost everything she did, she had one single purpose: to prove to me that with the blessing of our ancestors there was no difficulty on earth she could not overcome, like the time she dreamed that her mother, N'Soko, now deceased, had buried five hundred thousand CFA francs in the sand on the Côte Sauvage, so she went down there at sunrise with her eyes half closed and her hair still wild about her head. There, by chance, she found the stash of money, which made it possible for her to go back into business. Or when she got back from the Grand Marché on a day when things hadn't gone well, she'd distract me, sending me off to buy a litre of petrol, some spare wicks for the two Luciole storm lamps, then shut herself up in her room, and go back over her accounts. She didn't notice I was back again, and could hear her still murmuring prayers, blowing her nose and saying my grandmother's name, over and over, her words interspersed with sobbing. I knew it wasn't the bad day that had done this to her, it was the presence of the scary straw-hatted scarecrow behind the bedroom door. To me he felt like a human, watching us, moving about. His rags looked like strands of tangled creeper, waving around when you entered the room. My mother had been there when he was made, in Louboulou, the day Grandmother N'Soko, finding her maize plantation half ravaged by an army of persistent birds, had placed it in the middle of her field to protect the crops. Years later, when my grandmother died, Maman Pauline was determined she should inherit this object, while her brothers and sisters, baffled by her insistence, and by her disregard for material goods, had made a grab for the cattle and the plantation and sold them, since none of them wanted to set themselves up in the bush.
My orders were not to go near the scarecrow unless my mother said I should. She didn't really need to tell me, since I was already terrorised by the fact of its existence, and I couldn't understand what use he could be in our home. I would start shaking whenever, before a test or end-of-year exam, my mother would make me go and salute him, before setting off to school. Seeing me shrink from the bogeyman, she'd reassure me, saying, 'He'll bring you good luck, he'll tell you what to write to get a good mark.'
Whenever we moved house around the city, the scarecrow, who we called Massengo, came with us. When we'd rented in the Fonds Tié-Tié quartier, he'd been there, propped up behind the door of my parents' room. The year we lived with Uncle René, house-sitting while he was doing some training abroad, Massengo came too. When we bought our own place in the Voungou quartier, he stayed with us. Every New Year, my mother left a plate of pork and plantain bananas out for him, the traditional dish of the Bembé tribe. She talked to him for at least an hour to bring him up to date on what we'd done that year, and on our hopes and projects for the year just beginning. I learned later that my mother didn't have a bank account, that she kept her savings in a hole that was guarded by Massengo, who was said to have the power to increase tenfold all savings placed in his care. I believed this, especially as my mother was never without money ...
For all the care she took to hide her worries from me, Maman Pauline could never quite conceal her fragility when, irritated that she still wouldn't look at me when I desperately tried to catch her eye, I would ask her whether anything was wrong. Or course then she'd immediately burst out laughing and tell me I was worrying for nothing, of course she was fine, she must be, she was laughing, a person with worries wouldn't be relaxed, or happy, like she was. She'd round off her little charade by adopting a manner too studiously relaxed to be genuine, and telling me some rambling story, still with that ill-contained hilarity that increased my anxiety and convinced me she was worried about something.
If my attention drifted off, she'd notice straight away:
'Why aren't you laughing too? Don't you like my story of the piglet born with two snouts and only one nostril? Don't you think it's funny?'
I didn't answer. I stared at the roof, then down at the floor. Now it was her turn to worry about me, as within seconds, as though it was catching, my face had suddenly darkened with the conviction that someone was out to harm her, or that, even with the magical powers of Massengo the scarecrow, she couldn't pay back the loan she'd taken out to buy a licence at the Grand Marché and work with an easy conscience. Aged eleven I was already aware that the market tax had broken up many families, with mothers in despair because they'd been banned from selling peanuts for being a bit late with their payments. They'd arrive in the morning to find some council workers standing, Cerberuslike, at their table. Negotiation was not a term they used. They were paid to evict traders and replace them with others who had given them a bribe. Either the traders paid with money they borrowed from others, or they went back home wondering how they were going to feed the kid sitting waiting for them, blissfully unaware of its mother's troubles. Now my mother wasn't in either of these categories, she was careful to pay the licence fee in time.
Her air of sadness had its origins elsewhere, and that look of hers, though not hard, not snake-like, even when she was angry, was the expression of her determination to scale the endless steps that rose before her, this humble peasant woman from Louboulou, a small town with red earth, that produced corn, and tubers and yams, and bananas, and grazing pigs. She wanted to forget that place, where the man due to be her husband ran off without a word, abandoning her to her fate a few months before my birth. So she chose to live as a woman from nowhere, amid the hurly-burly of the town of Pointe-Noire, where I am now, a coastal city with not much indulgence for people arriving with the soil of the fields on their feet. She looked on me as an extension of her existence, the ray of hope at the end of an infinitely long tunnel. I was the indisputable sign of the immortality she imagined she would finally achieve the day I emerged from her womb in a run-down building in the maternity hospital in the Mouyondzi district, that both torrid and glacial night of 24 February 1966, while the moon struggled to lighten the darkness and the cocks were already crowing at the new dawn. Scarcely able to believe her own happiness, which even the memory of the disaster with my father could not spoil, she anxiously placed her feverish hands on my chest to check I was still breathing, that I wasn't an apparition who would vanish the moment she turned her back. She had to be persuaded to let the nurse wash the newborn babe she cradled in her arms. All that because she feared I would take the same path as my two older sisters, who died at birth. She had never been able to solve the mystery of their premature departure. Perhaps the two angel children had heard the prediction of a cousin of our mother's, who, goaded by jealousy, had publicly declared one day that the destiny of Maman Pauline was the darkest of all her line. The same bad-mouthed cousin also said that my mother would have no children, that she'd die all alone in a hut, and if by any chance she did manage to have a baby, it would be a boy, an ungrateful boy who would leave the country when he was twenty years old, and be living thousands of kilometres away the day she drew her last breath. This baby would not belong to her, he would just be passing through, taking the first empty womb he could find.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Lights of Pointe-Noire"
Copyright © 2013 Editions du Seuil.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The miracle woman,
The woman from nowhere,
Live and become,
One thousand and one nights,
My father's glory,
The woman next door,
Death at his heels,
My mother is a miss,
My mother's castle,
A fistful of dollars,
Children of paradise,
Close encounters of the third kind,
The suspended step of the stork,
War and peace,
Dead poets society,
House of stories,
Farewell my concubine,