Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Breaking the Rules with Broken Glass

Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass (translated from the French by Helen Stevenson) contains something very unusual: a male-versus-female pissing contest. But it completely lacks one of the standard elements of fiction: periods that denote the ends of sentences.

The novel’s narrator, Broken Glass, a heavy drinker of red wine who hangs out at a Congolese bar called Credit Gone West (proprietor: Stubborn Snail) strings thousands of words together, punctuating with commas and occasional spaces between paragraphs and unnumbered chapters. The wonder of Broken Glass is that, somehow, this all works, thanks to a combination of tragic and comic material, and oral and written storytelling. Stubborn Snail has given Broken Glass a notebook and asked him to write down stories about the people around him.

This is a novel about storytelling and myth, where everyone wants his tale told “properly,” so Broken Glass first underscores the importance of finding the right words for posterity. Broken Glass tells how the president demands that his cabinet search history for a slogan -- he’s jealous that the minister of agriculture found oratorical success by using “I accuse” in a speech. (I’m presuming this is a borrowing of “J’accuse”…) Someone comes up with “I have understood you” (evidently from Charles de Gaulle) after undertaking the task under threat of a Chaka Zulu spear and the sword of Damocles.

That combination of African history and Greek legend is an early hint of how Mabanckou uses differing traditions and registers to make the book lots of fun despite sad stories: we go from literal uses of “shit” to quick references to Don Quixote, Alice in Wonderland, Lenin and electricity, and Dr. Zhivago. (I’m afraid my recognition of references to French literature is quite weak.) The language in Helen Stevenson’s translation has a real verbatim feel, making this book a paradoxical written account of wandering stories – e.g. men talking about their wives acting unjustly toward them, with harsh consequences – that wouldn’t usually be recorded, at least not in this way.

The paradox is mirrored in Broken Glass himself. I see him as a one-man struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. He describes all sorts of earthy, bodily things – the afore-mentioned bathroom stuff plus sex – throwing in headier references to literature, history, his past career as a teacher, and the desire to be a writer, an artist. Then there’s all that red wine, which sure reminds me of Bacchus. The book feels thoroughly suffused with carnival and grotesque exaggeration, which is particularly apparent when Broken Glass describes the pissing contest, which seems to go on forever, in front of spectators. A bet involving sex underlies the event, and the contest summary lasts for about five pages, mentioning bad smells, Mardi Gras, and Lourdes.

Carnival always makes me think of affirming life while acknowledging death, so the river that flows through Broken Glass resembles the river of words that tells the stories. Like the words and stories, the river serves noble and lowly functions: a grave, an instrument of death, and a place for waste. I always imagine rivers ending a little like the book does, mysteriously or maybe suddenly – either petering out or flowing into an ocean – but without a true full stop. With form and content so intertwined, the endless stories, substories, and references of Broken Glass, told with Mabanckou’s jazzy and profane riffs, are more than just a stream of meaningless words.

Thank you to Soft Skull Press for giving me a review copy of Broken Glass at Book Expo America.

A few reviews:

The Complete Review gives Broken Glass a B+ here

Words Without Borders reviews Broken Glass here

The Boston Globe review

The Critical Flame’s review is here

Up next: Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, Maile Chapman’s Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto, and Julia Holmes’s Meeks.


  1. I'm so glad that I'm going to read Broken Glass this weekend because your review makes the book even more appealing. Thanks for the review.

  2. You're welcome, Kinna! I hope you enjoy it.