Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass was first published in France under the title Verre cassé in 2005. It immediately received massive attention. Mabanckou, a French citizen and lawyer born in Republic of the Congo, was already a known talent in Francophone literary circles, having won the Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire for his book Bleu-blanc-rouge and critical acclaim for African Psycho.
At the time of Broken Glass’s French publication, Republic of the Congo, where the book takes place, was only six years out of violent political conflict that saw the return of a former military head of state. The Democratic Republic of the Congo endured another paroxysm of internal fighting, while Sudan’s civil war and Darfur’s crisis raged. Sierra Leone and Liberia had just turned the corner after years of brutal war. Despite a new hope for African economies due to a commodities boom, poverty was still the central story in nearly every journalistic piece about Africa. The continent was very much defined in the international consciousness as a place of violence and instability. Critics and scholars would perpetuate their own position that African literature was overly explanatory, anthropological, and only a thinly veiled fictionalization of the lived African world by focusing their attention on works that portrayed Africa as suspended between the poles of suffering and resilience, concerned primarily with survival.
Then there’s Broken Glass, a book so irreverent in its approach to the revelation of the African soul, so brutally satiric 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. Kirkus Reviews calls it an “idiosyncratic and raucously impertinent tour of the Western canon.” The Independent views Broken Glass through the tried-and-true lens of backward Africa, saying Mabanckou’s words are spears that “aim their shafts at a parlous society dominated by poverty, corruption and an incorrigible faith in magic.” To be clear, these are both overwhelmingly positive reviews, as were most.
But could it be that these critics, even in their enthusiasm, miss something crucial about Broken Glass, a masterfully unstructured work that follows a drunken former schoolteacher named Broken Glass through meandering stories of his life and the lives of other customers who frequent the Pointe-Noire dive bar called Credit Gone West? I ask because the answer is a resounding yes. Attempts to place Broken Glass as a commentary on relationships between the African and the Western literary imaginaries or on Africa’s social ills are blind to the central theme underpinning this multifaceted work: a layered exploration of addiction.
To say that a novel whose central protagonist possesses the sole ambition (besides writing his stories) of getting and remaining drunk is more about Africa than about the bottles of wine soaking its pages is to be willfully consumed by structural stereotypes. Broken Glass, the protagonist, is a hopelessly drunk man. He has lost his job and his wife to drink. He endures untold humiliations—including being forced to pick up his own excrement with his bare hands—because of his alcohol-impaired mind. Like a typical alcoholic, he is simultaneously extremely intelligent and emotionally stunted, unable to maintain or develop relationships because his obsession with alcohol clouds all things. Alcohol makes the unacceptable acceptable and the absurd logical. It turns convoluted pontification into perfectly straight lines of reasoning. As Broken Glass himself recounts, “They wouldn’t give me geometry equipment because apparently I could no longer draw a straight line, which is the shortest distance between A and B.”
The prose in Broken Glass is hardly a straight line. The narrator begins without capital letters and careens on—“it’s a real mess this book, there are no full stops, only commas and more commas, sometimes speech marks when someone’s talking,” says Stubborn Snail, the bar owner, whom Broken Glass calls the boss of Credit Gone West. This novel is so confabulated that its central characters can comment on its construction to the point that it appears to be written as it’s read. So deeply does this resemble the disordered and yet at times genuinely insightful thoughts about the alcoholic’s mind that we lose ourselves in the psyche of Broken Glass, unable to determine reality, to see the lines between the man, his book, and the book about the man and his book.
Though Broken Glass is the protagonist of Broken Glass, most of the book is not about him but about the myriad customers at Credit Gone West and their hilariously rendered, traumatic origin stories. Each individual who pesters Broken Glass to tell his or her story has been born again from an old life full of middle-class banality, having passed through absurd hardship into sordid conditions in this haven of the spectacularly fallen. What are we to make of Pampers, so styled because of his prison-induced incontinence, the ultimate humiliation resulting from a constant craving for sex?
two and a half years in Makala, it’s an eternity, specially when the other inmates have been told you’re in there for doing obscene things to your daughter … how could they let the gang leaders in the other cells fuck me from behind like that, giving me what they called “the middle way” … I never got any sleep, there was always some guy behind me, whipping me, calling me filthy tart, a piece of tax-free household waste, a vegetable from Tipotipo Market, a cockroach, jellyfish, moth, rotten fruit of the breadfruit tree
What are we to do with Printer—the former manager at a printworks that, as he likes to brag, produced Paris Match—whose insatiable need for status leads him to marry a white woman in Paris, move to an all-white suburb, and proceed to construct a blissfully color-blind life until the revelation of his wife’s obsession with black male sexual prowess undoes his sense of self? “I’d gone quite mad, I tell you, I couldn’t speak, and everyone began to look blurred, and I felt like there was constant noise all around me, and everyone was talking too loud,” he says, detailing the end point of his obsession while still making it clear that however diminished he may be, he should be respected because he has “done France, that’s why, and it’s not every idiot who can say he’s done France.” How do we interpret the literal pissing contest between the only roundly developed female character—the voluptuous and boisterous Robinette—and an annoying interloper called Casmir High-Life that occurs in full view of the mostly male patrons, who watch in erotic awe this literal battle of the sexes? The characters who populate this novel inhabit a Zoroastrian hell that rewards their earthly cravings with perverted excess, documented in acute detail by an unreliable narrator seeking to obliterate himself in bottle after bottle of wine.
Broken Glass is a novel about addiction, but it moves beyond typologies to examine addiction’s core. For the patrons of Credit Gone West, it seems that the most addictive craving is the desire for recognition—and recognition comes when your story is acknowledged. When your story is told and retold and disseminated widely, each telling becomes a release, brings both pleasure and relief. Such is the addictive power of words whether spoken or written, even absent quotation marks and full stops.
It is reflective of Mabanckou’s politics and facility that the ultimate targets of his satiric wit remain so collectively oblivious to their own addictions that they continuously miss the essence of the novel. Of course, if you have grown accustomed to trafficking in preconceptions about African bodies and the stories that define us, then it is impossible to see anything but the usual themes of poverty, magic, and the unfortunate lot of the tragic Negro. But the thing about glass is that one often gets a clearer picture when the mediating plane shatters and the thing itself is exposed. Broken Glass is himself a shattered man who we now see through—to the truth about mankind, African or whatever else, and to this need for affirmation of our existences. The more we read, the more we want to read, the more stories we need, and thus we unspool the tangible world before us into threads of unreality. Broken Glass is a shattered novel that confronts us with the question, Can language be intoxicating? It offers one of many potential answers. The nature of our addiction, whether to wine or to facile narratives that explain our lives—or even a continent—depends on two factors: the presence of a substance to consume and a person to consume it with abandon.
Uzodinma Iweala is the author of the acclaimed novels Beasts of No Nation and Speak No Evil.
This essay appears as the foreword to Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass, out on October 9 from Soft Skull Press. © Uzodinma Iweala. Reprinted with the permission of the Wylie Agency LLC.