(4.5 stars) Alain Mabanckou, a Congolese author who now teaches French literature at UCLA, writes an often hilarious, non-stop narrative full of life and excitement, a narrative which, at the same time, is also mordant in its depictions of life. His story, much like life itself, is one constantly unreeling narrative in which there are no full-stops--no periods and no capital letters, except for names and places. This stream-of-consciousness approach is so unpretentious, so natural, and so conversational, however, that the reader never has to stop to puzzle about where ideas begin and end or what the author might mean.
The main character, a Congolese alcoholic named Broken Glass, is immortalizing the sad stories of his fellow patrons at a bar called Credit Gone West in the beachfront city of Pointe Noire. A teacher, until he drunkenly bared his buttocks to his class, Broken Glass has traveled the world through books, loving the adventures of Tarzan, Tintin, and Santiago the fisherman, as a child, and then going on to study and enjoy the French classics. Ultimately he tells the "civilized" literary world that "Until the day your characters start to see how the rest of us earn our nightly crust, there'll be no such thing as literature."
Stubborn Snail, the hard-working proprietor of the bar, has convinced the sixty-four-year-old Broken Glass to record the history of Credit Gone West in his stead: " I just don't have that little bug that writers have, that you have, it shows when you talk about literature...you can invent all sorts of other lives and you're just one character in the great book of life." Neither the Stubborn Snail nor Broken Glass believes the old African saying that "when an old person dies, a library burns." As the Snail says, "depends which old person, don't talk cr*p."
Broken Glass's vignettes of the bar's patrons unfold at their own pace. Pampers Man, who was incarcerated without a trial; The Printer, who believes his white wife in Paris is a witch; Mama Mfoa, "the bald soprano, who runs a "bicycle chicken" shop near the bar; and Mouyeki, a sorcerer who claims that he can perform better miracles than Christ, are among the characters whose lives are immortalized. Eventually, the reader learns the sad stories of Broken Glass and the Stubborn Snail, from which they have recovered in varying degrees.
Slangy, funny, and filled with unique observations, Broken Glass's story reveals much about his society, himself, and the role of literature. The customs of the country and its traditions come to life in juxtaposition with Broken Glass's literate references to France's notable literary achievements, references so natural that they become the speaker's "throw-aways." His commentary on dysfunctional politics, the Congo's French colonial heritage, and the regular betrayal of men by women is integrated into the little life stories of his bar-companions to give a broad picture of their world. Broken Glass makes the best of what life offers and does not to expect any more than can be found in the bottom of a bottle. Literate, perceptive, and filled with unique observations, BROKEN GLASS is a one of the rare novels which finds moments of hilarity in stories of otherwise overwhelming sadness. Mary Whipple