My French reading for the year has begun outside of my reading list with Alain Mabanckou’s 2009 novel Black Bazaar.
This is a rambling book about an African from the Republic of Congo and his everyday life in the expat community in the north of Paris.
After a meeting with Louis-Philippe, a Haitian expat, he decides to write about his life and so we discover this community that vibrates to Congolese music, where wind instruments, unlike Jazz, were abandoned years ago. Everyone in the book has a colourful nickname, and most can’t be easy to translate. The writer is known by his friends as the ‘Fessologue’ or Ass Studier, translated as the Buttologist. The title of his book Black Bazaar comes from the black community in Paris with bazaar, meaning mess, in French.
The book begins after Fessologue has been abandoned by his wife ‘Couleur d’origine’ original colour, who was born in France but is blacker than the expats born in Africa.
‘So there is nothing left to tell you that a woman and a child lived with me in this room, except maybe the shoe that my woman forgot probably due to the rush. That day she must have told herself that I could come back at any time and catch her collecting together all of her belongings whereas I was Enjoying my Pelforth at the Gips and if I found that shoe it’s a little thanks to Paul from the Larger Congo, who said to me whilst we were drinking that when a woman leaves you then you should change the position of your bed to underline that the relationship is over.’***
The book is a meandering story describing the writers life through his friends and his encounters as he makes the journey from writing to being a writer. Most of the Africans painted in the book have strong views about subjects that touch them , such as Yves one of the writers drinking pals
‘Yves from the Ivory Coast once again brought up the subject of the colonial debt you should have taken a métis, you haven’t understood anything about this country despite my trying to explain Urbi et Orbi that the most urgent problem for we negroes is to snatch an indemnity from them here and now for what we were submitted to during the colonisation… The equation is simple friend, the more we go out with French girls, the more we contribute to leaving our trace in this country, to be able to let our old colonisers know that we are still here, that in tomorrow’s world there will be negroes at every crossroads, negroes who will be French like them whether they like it or not.’
Or the Arab who owns the corner shop and speaks about Pan Africanism, respect and who knows everyone in the neighbourhood, or Mr. Hippocrate a French west indian who considers himself above the Africans, used by Mabanckou to illustrate base racism and who defends colonisation as a generous act.
This was a light colourful book worth the detour.
First Published in French as “Black Bazaar” by Éditions du Seuil in 2009
Translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone and published as “Black Bazaar” by Serpents Tail in 2012