Congolese author Alain Mabanckou is now one of those writers who is commonly mentioned when discussing the exciting rise of literature from the African continent. But this wasn’t always the case. Back in 2003, when his recently reissued debut African Psycho was first released, he was just another unknown author who probably dreamt of the prize nominations and bestselling status which he has been party to in the years since. African Psycho, which is now available in a new edition from Serpent’s Tail, was definitely the kind of book that made people sit up and take notice. Relentlessly violent, luridly sexually deviant, and featuring a protagonist so twisted that he gives Patrick Bateman a run for his money, the novel shows its author going full throttle in an attempt to shock and enthral. Nobody could accuse him of shying away from the spotlight.
And as well as grabbing attention through its brutality and rawness, African Psycho also presents a complex main character that will keep the reader involved all the way through. Gregoire Nakobomayo is a wannabe psychopath. He’s a man so desperate for attention that he is willing to do anything to get it and he takes a long dead murderer, Angoulima, as his inspiration. That Gregoire is terrible at his chosen hobby, and unable to commit a single crime without a major misstep, just makes him all the more compelling. What the reader eventually comes to realise is that Gregoire, an orphan, is really just after a world in which he can feel important and accepted, a place where he feels like he belongs.
Fourteen years after that debut hit the shelves, we now have a translation of Mabanckou’s latest work. One thing hasn’t changed at all. At the heart of Black Moses we have an orphan, a person looking for acceptance and meaning, a character desperately searching for belonging. But while African Psycho was lurid and, at times, felt like it was being shocking for the sake of being shocking, Black Moses offers a more measured tone and a story that places more importance on historical context and the political climate of the author’s home country.
Set in the aftermath of 1970’s Marxist-Leninist revolution in the People’s Republic of Congo, young Moses sees his world turned around when religious practice is outlawed. The orphanage he has grown up in had one shining light in the form Pastor Papa Moupelo. But when this man is banned from visiting the orphanage and a new and harsher regime takes over, Moses’s whole sense of self becomes unstable. This will lead to a change in his behaviour, difficulties in his firmest friendship, and an eventual descent into a chaotic world which he is woefully unprepared for.
Like African Psycho, Black Moses unfolds with a huge amount of humour and heart. But unlike the book that came more than ten years before it, it feels believable, real, and all the more heartbreaking because of it.
Any Cop?: These are two strong novels from Mabanckou; that much should be unquestioned. Read together, they also demonstrate the progression of an author from someone who is playing with form and story and still feeling the need to shock audiences into paying attention, to someone who feels confident in their characters and knows that their writing is good enough to keep people reading. Both books are worth a read, but Black Moses shows why Mabanckou is a Man Booker International Prize finalist and a winner of the English Pen Award.