Sunday, June 11, 2017

African Psycho, by Alain Mabanckou

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A Congolese man plots a murder as an act of hero worship.

Gregoire Nakobomayo is an orphan and car mechanic. He lives in a Congolese town that he doesn't name, but in an ironic-comic tone calls He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot. He gives other place names similarly cryptic, hyphenated titles. Gregoire tells his own story, of his rough childhood and upbringing, of his self-loathing and ugliness (he has a rectangular shaped head that he keeps shaved). But before this quick sketch of a personal history, Gregoire boasts of his intention to kill his girlfriend, Germaine. He tells us in the first line. “I have decided to kill Germaine on December 29.”

It takes a while to get to Germaine's story. Firstly Gregoire pays a long worship to his hero, the Great Master Angoualima. Angoualima is a famous serial killer and a coarse philosopher on the virtues of immorality. Throughout the novel Gregoire obsequiously calls him “Great Master”, even though he never meets him because before he can, Angoualima is found murdered. His discovered body is described as that of an ugly little man, almost an evil, menacing sprite, with six fingers on each hand, a bulging skull and a harelip.

Angoualima later visits Gregoire as a ghost or spirit and berates him for his cowardice, all the while espousing his own anti-social credentials (“I sh** on society.”) Angoualima is a grotesque, comic figure, like something out of Chaucer or the Marquis de Sade. He revels in his own putrid immorality.

Gregoire's girlfriend, the plucky Germaine, we learn in the novel's third part, is a prostitute. She's a procuress, running a sex ring from a local restaurant which she uses as cover. She discusses her trade in a matter-of-fact way, and her bag of sex aides is described at comic length. Gregoire decides to kill her, not because he hates Germaine, but rather to live up to his idol, the Great Master Angoualima. But all does not go to plan, for Gregoire, much like Jean Genet's anti-heroes, is a hopeless bungler and fool.

It's hard to think of a stranger novel you'll read. Alain Mabanckou has written an absurdist, existential black comedy that leaves an uncomfortable feeling. Gregoire is such an unreliable narrator that in the end it's not even clear that his hero Angoualima and girlfriend Germaine even exist. They could well be the fevered creations of his imagination. If anything, one pities Gregoire. Committing murder is his one chance of elevating himself, but his incompetence makes him sure to remain a non-entity, on society's bottom rung.

A work that is disturbing, comic, absurd and unforgettable.

African Psycho, by  Alain Mabanckou. Published by Serpent's Tail. ISBN: 9781781257876 RRP: $19.99

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