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- Published on Amazon.com
"I'll manage to get myself out of this". Thrown into some dark hole or cell of some kind, not knowing by whom, where and why, the first person narrator can no longer "distinguish between dream and reality..." Nightmarish wild thoughts tumble over each other in the captive's mind; shady figures appear like shadows before his eyes - is it Moki? - while he is desperately trying to hang on to hope and a resolution of his predicament. He muses that order in his thoughts, a chronology of events may lead him to a way out of this cul-de-sac of a situation: start at the beginning. Whether he will escape and, most importantly, how he ended up in these desperate circumstances in the first place becomes the primary story of this extraordinary novel by Franco-Congolese author Alain Mabanckou. Written between 1993 and 1995 and published in 1998 in France it won the Grand Prix littéraire d'Afrique Noire in 1999. "BLUE WHITE RED" stands at the beginning of a remarkable and multifaceted career of one of the most important African writers today. Born and raised in Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo, his novels have won several awards, among them the prestigious Prix Renaudot for Mémoires de porc-epic (Memoirs of a Porcupine) in 2006. For more than ten years Mabanckou has been living in the USA, teaching Francophone literature, currently at UCLA.
BLUE WHITE RED (you realize the colours of France's flag) is presented from the perspective of Massala-Massala, a young Congolese man with a dream. A dream that many young Africans of his generation share: move to Paris, live the good life there, make a lot of money and come home regularly to bring presents to family and friends (and show off) ... and spread the dream to others. An infectious attraction to a world that appears easy and full of fun, where young men can afford the latest fashion in clothes, perfumes, hairstyles and in skin-lightening treatments. Those who return on regular visits home are called the "Parisians", and, while in their old neighbourhood, are followed by throngs of admirers. There is another group of emigrants, the "Peasants", those who work in the provinces in France, without any of the glamour or the features of a 'dandy'. Mabanckou's portrayal of the Parisians is tongue-in-cheek and somewhat mocking, of course. This is done extremely well, indirectly and subtly, given his hero is completely taken by the façade of his idol. This contrast between the naïve musings of the narrator and the reader's sense that things are probably not like they seem, makes for entertaining as well as thought provoking reading. Still, there are yet other aspects to the narration that keep the reader engaged.
Massala-Massala's neighbour, Moki, is the local Parisian, who returns every year loaded with money and gifts, holding court in the 'house' (renovated, expanded palatially) next door. Our narrator follows him around, offering any assistance needed locally... he wants to be his shadow, even imitating his walk and gestures. As luck has it, Moki offers to help him to get to Paris and, after lengthy preparations, eventually, the young man enters the City of Light...
The description of his experiences in Paris from the first moments onwards is filtered through the time lens of memory, enriched by personal musings about people and local settings: "Everything flows in the slowness of memory. The past is not just a worn-out shadow that walks behind us. It can be ahead of us, precede us, bifurcate, take another path and gets lost somewhere... I must remember." Then, quickly, he returns to the action of the day, keeping the reader's attention. We can easily imagine that life is not as he dreamed it.
Mabanckou is an exquisite story teller who combines humour with satire, open sympathy for his hero's situation mixed with a good dose of self-criticism instilled into him. Massala-Massala recalls his father's cautionary advice, but, maybe, it is too late. Mabanckou combines his convincing depiction of people and scenarios with a deep understanding of and concern for the underlying socio-political tensions and challenges that have faced young people not only in his home country but across Africa in the early years of independence - and to some degree in many places still today. Mabanckou focuses in this and his later novels on the richness and diversity of Congolese society; his satire becomes more biting. Yet, this debut novel shows much of his style and substance in remarkable ways. He has become known not only as an imaginative story teller in the best African tradition; he enriches his writing with drawing on his astute observation of people and circumstances. Rather uniquely - and what makes reading his work in the original French and translating it so challenging - he is an innovator of language and idiom, mixing colloquialisms and images with traditional French (French-French). Both the note by the translator of BLUE WHITE RED, Alison Dundy, and the introductory essay by Dominic Thomas are of very helpful in this regard. Ms. Dundy's translation is excellent. Having read Mabanckou in French, I know the challenge. Even the name "Moki" was chosen for its underlying meaning in the local language... [Friederike Knabe]