The new issue of The Critical Flame is now available online, complete with a piece by editor/founder Dan Pritchard on Internet Book Reviews (through the lens of an internet review of the Open Letters Monthly anthology of internet book reviews), and an interesting piece by Katherine Evans on Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass (a book that we tried to acquire for Open Letter). This is an extremely funny book, very voice driven, fairly manic. Here’s Evans’s description:
Broken Glass is narrated from the perspective of its title character, an ex-teacher with too great a love for Congolese palm wine. He now spends his days with the cast of characters who frequent the bar Credit Gone West. Stubborn Snail, the owner of the bar, has given former aspiring author Broken Glass a notebook in which to record the life and stories of his bar. This task is not particularly challenging. The diverse group that frequents Credit Gone West is all too eager to share their stories of heartbreak, ruin, and destruction as soon as they learn of the project. These stories, recorded and interpreted by Broken Glass, fill most of the novel and stand alongside their author’s musings on his own life and the community he now inhabits. [. . .]
This passage is indicative of the novel’s irreverent style and reveals Mabanckou as the rare kind of writer who can incorporate high literary allusions as well as bawdy humor. Mabanckou draws heavily on his predecessors as he pursues this project, and it is perhaps one of the most notable characteristics of Broken Glass that it is absolutely littered with literary allusions. French writers from Rimbaud to Chateaubriand find good representation in the pages of Broken Glass. These references, which also encompass a full range of world literature, are rarely more than passing allusions, as demonstrated in a particularly loaded passage that brings to light the sheer diversity of writers referenced in Mabanckou’s work:
“yes, I really must go, and travel northwards, and experience the highest solitude, see the diverted river, and live in the big house filled with the light of an African summer, and leave this continent, to discover other hot countries, and live one hundred years of solitude, adventures and discovery in a village called Macondo, fall under the spell of a character called Melquides, and listen entranced to tales of love, madness, and death… I must cast my net across the entire continent of Europe, so dear to our friend the Printer, I the outsider, the rebel, the approximate man, I was just behind a guy called Doctor Zhivago who walked through the snow”
Evans does pick at some of the flaws with this book—“many of his stylistic innovations are inconsistent and occasionally fall flat”—but nevertheless, this is a pretty even handed review and makes me really want to reread the book . . . (And African Psycho, which is pretty amazing as well.)
So, even though we’re in danger right now of becoming a blog that only writes about book prizes (or maybe I’m only feeling that way because the Best Translated Book Award has been on my mind for so long), we would be remiss if we didn’t make mention of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist:
There are a few things to note: Although the bigger presses, or big name presses, are well represented, it’s interesting to note how much of the heavy lifting for translation in the UK is done by smaller independent presses (Comma, Maia, Bitter Lemon); there are three books (three!) that are translated from Arabic, which has to be some kind of record; and Humphrey Davies and Anthea Bell have the knack—two nominated titles each.
Morning Edition had a cool piece on this morning about this year’s recently concluded (as in today) Jaipur Literature Festival, which included a few seconds with the Festival’s director William Dalrymple.
It’s only the Festival’s 5th year, but they have managed to line up an impressive list af attendees already, including: Alain Mabanckou, Esther Freud, Amit Chaudhuri, Roberto Calasso, and many others.
We’ve never been (we’re always open for an invitation!), but it sounds amazing.
Richard Lea has a great audio interview with Alain Mabanckou about Broken Glass, his second novel to be published in English. (Although apparently only in the UK for now. Soft Skull did African Psycho a couple years ago, but I haven’t seen a listing for the new book yet.)
The Guardian also posted a positive review of Broken Glass some time back:
Mabanckou knows his French literature (he teaches that subject at UCLA). Broken Glass is a whistlestop tour of French literature and civilisation, and if you don’t know your Marivaux, your Chateaubriand, your ENAs and Weston shoes you’ll miss a lot of the gags (“a quarrel of Brest”, anyone?) – but don’t worry, there are still plenty left.
It’s not just French writers who make an appearance. That arch navel-gazer Holden Caulfield (or someone claiming to be him) has a walk-on part, and Broken Glass ends “we’ll meet again, in the other world, Holden, we’ll have a drink together . . . I’ll tell you what they do with the poor little ducks in cold countries during winter time.”
Although its cultural and intertextual musings could fuel innumerable doctorates, the real meat of Broken Glass is its comic brio, and Mabanckou’s jokes work the whole spectrum of humour.
Laila Lalami reviews Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass in The National
“In Africa, when an old person dies, a library burns.”
When the Malian writer and ethnologist Amadou Hampâté Bâ uttered these words at a Unesco assembly in 1960, he was attempting to draw attention to Africa’s tradition of oral storytelling. Little did he know that his aphorism would turn into one of the most persistent clichés about the continent, one that unfortunately reinforced the erroneous idea that there was no tradition of written literature in Africa prior to European colonialism. Early on in Alain Mabanckou’s new novel Broken Glass (to be published this month in translation from French to English), the proprietor of a seedy bar in Brazzaville, who is referred to only as Stubborn Snail, hears the slogan and derisively responds that it “depends which old person, don’t talk crap, I only trust what’s written down.”
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Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .