Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou

Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou (2009) Original French title: Black Bazar 

Il soutient que l’Africain a été le premier homme sur la Terre, les autres races ne sont venues qu’après. Tous les hommes sont donc des immigrés, sauf les Africains qui sont chez eux ici-bas. He says that the African man was the first man on Earth and that the other races only came after. Therefore, all men are immigrants except African people who are right at home.

Mabanckou is a writer I’d wanted to read for a long time and if I had to tag Black Bazar with something I’d say energetic and refreshing.

The main character is Buttologist, a Congolese dandy who lives in Paris. He’s brokenhearted after his French girlfriend of Congolese origin left him to go live in Congo with a musician he nicknamed The Mongrel. In French, Buttologist is named Fessologue and he got his nickname because of his fondness for female butts. The Mongrel is L’Hybride.

Buttologist pours his thoughs into his journal, Black Bazaar and that’s how the reader has access to his inner mind. We hear about his relationship with Original Color and the trail of sorrow she left behind. We meet with his friends at Jip’s, a bar in the Halles neighborhood in Paris. (That’s where the Beaubourg museum is.) His friends are also immigrants from Africa and they chat about everything. He introduces us to Congolese fashion and teaches us about his community. He lives in a tiny studio in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, near the Château d’Eau metro station. We walk around with him, see his interaction with the shopkeeper L’Arabe du Coin. He shares his thoughts about his life, about being black in Paris, about the French language. His life changes when he meets Jean-Philippe, a famous author from Haiti, probably Laferrière literary doppelgänger. Buttologist starts to write as well.

Black Bazaar is not a book made for summaries and Cliff Notes. It’s too full of life. The best of the experience lays in Mabanckou’s incredible virtuosity with the French language. He knows it inside and out and plays it effortlessly. His style is full of quirks, twists and innuendos. It sounds simple but it’s not.

Un Blanc qui apprend du tam-tam, c’est normal, ça fait chic, ça fait type qui est ouvert aux autres cultures du monde et pas du tout raciste pour un sou. Un Noir qui bat du tam-tam, ça craint, ça fait trop retour aux sources, à la case départ, à l’état naturel, à la musique dans la peau. C’est pas pour rien que les Européens s’intéressent comme ça au tam-tam. C’est pour comprendre comment les choses se passaient chez nous quand il n’y avait pas d’autres moyens de communication que celui-là.

A white guy who learns how to play tom-tom, it’s normal, it’s chic, it says “I’m a man open to the other cultures of the world and I’m not racist at all”. A Black man who plays the tam-tam, it sucks, it’s too much back to his roots, back to square one, back to his natural state, back to having the beat. It ain’t surprising that Europeans are interested in tom-tom that way. It is to understand how things went in our country when we had no other means of communication.

There is a lot packed up in this simple paragraph. First it resonates with Dany Laferrière’s comments about his meetings with white girls in Montreal in How To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. Mabanckou seems to say that when a white man plays the tom-tom, he seems open minded and when a black man does, he seems to be looking for his past. Neither the white man or the black man is seen as simply someone who enjoys playing the tom-tom. There has to be a meaning behind it or more precisely, our cultural background puts a filter on what we see.

Then, there’s the brilliant style. I tried to translate this paragraph as best as I could but a lot of things are lost in translation. It is difficult for me to give back the tone and the register of Black Bazaar. In French, I’d qualify it as highbrow colloquial. The use of ça instead of cela reveals spoken language. Then he makes play on words with casual expressions. Retour à la case départ is the French way to say Back to square one on board games. But in French, a case is also the word used for African huts. So, for a French, it sounds like back to African huts as well. And then, there’s la musique dans la peau which I translated as having the beat. That’s a cliché about black people but in French it has an additional meaning. The literal translation of la musique dans la peau would be to have music in your skin or in English, you’d probably say in your blood. But blood is red for everyone when someone’s skin can be of different color, so the French has another layer. And on top of it, La musique dans la peau was a hit song by Zouk Machine in the 1980s. It was a group of black ladies from Guadalupe singing zouk songs.

This is Alain Mabanckou for you: intelligent colloquial language laced with cultural references and punchy thoughts about the relationships between blacks and whites and the world around him. I could quote other paragraphs with embedded Brassens lyrics or references to Césaire or Dany Lafferière. Writers like Mabanckou keep the French language alive. If books had buddies, Black Bazaar would be friends with A Moveable FeastHow To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, Going to Meet the ManAsk the DustPost Office or with The Lonely LondonersBlack Bazaar would be in good company, not with Montaigne and La Boëtie but it would be “friends first”, like in Brassens’s famous song Les Copains d’abord.

NB: Black Bazaar is full of characters with colorful nicknames. I have read Mabanckou in French but had a look at the English version of names coined by the English translator Sarah Ardizzone.

This picture was taken in Bordeaux and it reminded me of Black Bazaar, the book I was reading at the time.

 

  1. davidsimmons6
    May 25, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    My experience with this author is limited to Mémoirs de porc-épic (Memoirs of a Porcupine), which won a Prix Renaudot. I enjoyed his French writing immensely, but found the ‘characters’ and ‘plot’ weird and far out. Your description of this other novel tempts me to try Mabanckou again, but I worry that it may be too similar―that is, strong in language but weak in story. I wonder if I will end up with the same reaction: “So, what?”

    Like

    • May 25, 2017 at 12:44 pm

      You’re not in this for the story, David. If you expect a strong plot, you’ll be disappointed. You’re in this for the atmosphere, the thoughts, the experience of Paris through the eyes of a Congolese immigrant.

      Like

  2. May 25, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    I think I have this on my TBR, it was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a while back.

    Like

    • May 25, 2017 at 1:55 pm

      He was. I’ve seen reviews on Anglophone blogs. (I think Stu likes him too.)

      Like

  3. May 25, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    Full of life is the best way to describe it! You did a very good job of translating it – as you say, it’s not simple at all.

    Like

    • May 25, 2017 at 1:57 pm

      I relieved to hear I did OK with the translation. He’s like Gary in that respect, it’s hard to pinpoint his style.

      Like

  4. May 25, 2017 at 4:33 pm

    Not sure why, but I had the impression, his work was violent.

    Like

    • May 25, 2017 at 5:38 pm

      Not at all. It’s quite funny.

      Like

      • davidsimmons6
        May 25, 2017 at 6:40 pm

        An awful lot of people get knocked off in Memoirs of a Porcupine.

        Like

        • May 25, 2017 at 8:46 pm

          Different book then and it explains why Guy had in mind his books were violent.

          Like

  5. May 26, 2017 at 8:30 am

    I bought two of his books last fall during the hectic ‘literary prize season’ .
    Lumières de Pointe-Noir and Le Monde est mon langage.
    They are still in my bookcase….I see in your review and comments
    a lot of positive feedback. Time to start
    Great post!

    Like

    • May 27, 2017 at 7:30 am

      I’ll read more by him, that’s for sure. I’d like to read Le monde est mon langage.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. May 28, 2017 at 8:09 am

    Je n’ai lu que ‘petit piment’ de cet auteur, un bon moment de lecture
    I’ve only read ‘petit piment’, very pleasant

    Like

    • May 28, 2017 at 10:01 pm

      Was it funny as well?

      Like

      • May 30, 2017 at 8:42 am

        Je n’ai pas lu celui que tu as chroniqué, mais j’ai un bon souvenir du petit piment

        Like

        • May 30, 2017 at 9:30 pm

          C’est bon à savoir

          Like

  7. May 29, 2017 at 1:27 pm

    Interesting. I have one or two by him on my wish list, but haven’t taken the plunge yet. African Psycho is one, I think.

    Like

    • May 29, 2017 at 9:44 pm

      Let me know what you think of him when you get to his books. I wonder how he sounds in English.

      Like

  8. May 31, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    I loved Memoirs of a Porcupine and this is very much on my radar. It sounds marvellous, though it also sounds a huge challenge to the translator.

    Like

    • June 1, 2017 at 8:43 pm

      It must be challenging to translate but also a lot of fun for a passionate translator.
      I don’t know which one I’ll read after this one. It’ll be a tough choice.

      Like

  9. June 1, 2017 at 6:46 pm

    Question: Last year I was overwhelmed with books in La Rentrée…too many to read in too short a time. I noticed that the books were published in July of August 2016.
    Where can I find these new books….where should I look? Do you recommende a good french blog that is watching these new books closely?

    Like

    • June 1, 2017 at 8:45 pm

      I’m sorry Nancy but I don’t follow a lot of French book bloggers and the ones I follow don’t post about new books.
      The only thing I can recommend is to check out newspapers websites and also the Magazine Lire and the Magazine littéraire. Otherwise there are also online bookstores. (the libraire who recommended Le Garçon to me publishes newsletters. http://www.lesprit-livre.fr/ )

      Liked by 1 person

      • June 1, 2017 at 9:16 pm

        Thanks so much for you reaction…there is no other way, I’ll just have to keep searching (amazon.fr) and Lire and bookstore websites (Lesprit). It take time but I hope to find a few possible long-listed books to read this summer. (before La Rentrée – rush!) 🙂

        Like

        • June 1, 2017 at 10:05 pm

          Ask to @VendrediLecture on Twitter. They’ll know book bloggers who read books of the Rentrée Littéraire.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. June 12, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    Such an amazing read and such a vivacious author. I have been one of Mabanckou’s students at UCLA and my favorite book from him has long been Memoirs of a Porcupine. His lightheartedness comes out so vividly in every one of his works and still manages to paint an utterly ideal yet true-to-the-wird portrait of the francophone world to this very “post colonial” world. Verre Cassé is next on my list!
    Great Post! So glad to be reading reviews on Mabanckou’s works.

    Like

    • June 12, 2017 at 9:38 pm

      Hello Delphine,

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.
      How lucky you are to have been in one of Mabanckou’s classes! I don’t know how he is as a teacher but he’s fantastic at interviews on the radio.
      I will read more by him. I still have to decide which one.

      Have you ever read Dany Lafferière?

      Like

  1. July 10, 2017 at 4:22 pm

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