books, People of Color, Political Writing, Reading, Works in Translation

“Black Moses” by Alain Mabanckou (translated by Helen Stevenson)

“[Papa Moupelo] was our moral compass, the spiritual father of all us children who’d never known their biological father, and whose only example of paternal authority came at best from the priest, and at worst from the Director of the orphanage. Papa Moupelo stood for tolerance, absolution and redemption, while Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako was the embodiment of malice and disrespect. The affection we showed our priest came from the bottom of our hearts, and we looked for nothing in return except the kindness in his eyes, which gave us strength, while the Director’s sullen mien served only to remind us we were children to whom life’s normal course had sadly been denied. The way people looked at us said it all: to the Pontenegrins, ‘orphanage’ meant ‘prison’, and you went to prison for committing a serious offence, or maybe even a crime . . . “

In a bleak orphanage (is there any other kind in literature?) outside Point-Noire, Congo IMG_0434in the 1970s, Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakako struggles against a bullied present and a dreary future. Moses, as most people call him, gets swept up by two of the orphanage’s twin terrors and eventually runs away with them to Pointe-Noire, where he and his cohorts join the city’s seedy underbelly, surviving through petty theft and felonious violence.

Moses eventually gets taken in by a brothel full of women who mother him in exchange for errand-running and heartfelt devotion. Moses, whose life has been neither easy nor innocent, is exposed to political corruption and the unrest which grips Congo. He sees first hand the hypocritical leaders who frequent the brothel under cloak of night, then persecute them in light of day, all for political gain.

Mabanckou seemingly has created Moses as the personification of his country. Orphaned and vulnerable, both Moses and Congo are drawn at a young age to the white man’s religion and influence.

“When the Whites arrived in Africa, we had land and they had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed: when we opened them again, we found the Whites had the land and we had the Bible.” 

As they age, they are both tugged and pulled as vying groups fight for power and control. They are privy to the underhanded dealings and nefarious ambitions of so many men in their country. And as the country seems in danger of devolving, Moses himself degenerates into total madness.

“Black Moses” is a sardonic, metaphorical glimpse into the life of a country ill at ease and struggling for stability and identity. It is a rare look at a central African country with which I, at least, am unfamiliar; a land little discussed and poorly understood by many of us in the “Western World”. Mabanckou’s writing is magical, fairy tale like in its extremes, its wit, and its ability to weave lore into a modern story.

Many thanks to The New Press for providing a complimentary copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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books, Reading, Women Writers, Works in Translation

“The Nakano Thrift Shop” by Hiromi Kawakami

Hitomi, I . . . I’m not very good at this, I’m sorry, Takeo said softly.
Not good at what?
Everything and nothing.
That’s not true. I’m the one who’s no good at this.
Really? I mean, Takeo said, looking me straight in the eyes for a change. You’re not one for, for getting through life either?

IMG_0404Hiromi Kawakami’s “The Nakano Thrift Shop” is a cryptic character study of the people who inhabit a small thrift shop in Japan. Hitomi, Takeo, Masayo, and Mr. Nakano are quirky, enigmatic treasures just like those found in the shop they operate. Each has a more complicated back story than is visible at first glance.

“These things are old, so you can’t let them collect dust, Mr. Nakano often said. Because they are old, they must be immaculate. But not too perfect. It’s a fine line, a fine line, he would say, chuckling as he passed the duster over everything.”

The characters, too, are imperfect; their flaws are charming, their awkwardness endearing.

Each of the main characters faces romantic complications, and each appears to be ill-equipped to navigate the intricacies of love and sex. For Hitomi, a relatively inexperienced girl who is captivated by her coworker Takeo, love is ultimately uncharted and unknowable.

“This was what made love so difficult. Or rather, the difficult thing was first determining whether or not love was what I wanted.”

Masayo, sister of the shop’s proprietor who is meant to be sage and sensible, herself struggles with a complicated relationship, ultimately letting her lover slip away.

“When you get old and far-sighted, you can’t look your sweetheart in the eye from close up. You need a little distance, so that you can focus on each other. So that your faces don’t look blurry–anyway, you need a little distance.”

I found interesting the decision to present some dialogue within quotation marks and some without. Because this is a work in translation, I don’t know if this inconsistency was a translation issue or an intentional choice. If intentional, what does it signify, this punctuation of some but not all dialogue? This idiosyncrasy is particularly notable because so much of the story is made up of brief snippets of speech. No character speaks at great length and rarely do any speak with particular clarity. Is the presence or absence of quotation marks, therefore, meant to signal importance? To question veracity? Or is it simply an enigmatic trait parallel to those the characters possess?

“The Nakano Thrift Shop” is sweet but not saccharine. The characters are un-extraordinary and irresistible. Kawakami’s writing (and the translation of Allison Markin Powell) is a pleasure-filled puzzle – one in which the solution is beside the point. A true delight.

Thank you to Europa Editions for the complimentary review copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.
“The Nakano Thrift Shop” is released in the United States on June 6, 2017.