26 October 2020
For Black History Month, we’re flooding our news feed with profiles of our black authors, past and present. In the seventh of the series, Publisher Hannah Westland writes about Alain Mabanckou, author of The Death of Comrade President.
One of the longest standing and most beloved authors on the Serpent’s Tail list, we have published eight books by Alain Mabanckou over the years. Mabanckou is a wildly inventive, hugely entertaining writer who is equally deft at drawing on stories of his own life growing up in Pointe Noire in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as he is taking us on flights of imagination, following bar flies, psychopaths, humans who can transform into animals, street-walkers, teenage chancers and any number of other larger than life characters. His characters’ view from the street always has something bigger to tell us about the wider world, from the experience of immigrant life in Paris to the sweep of African history.
His playful often absurdist style has had him described as the African Samuel Beckett and his work makes nods to a wide range of influences, from Dickens to Bret Easton Ellis. But comparisons feel insufficient when it comes to describing the experience of reading Mabanckou’s work. You simply need to dive in and let him take you where he will, with the knowledge that you will enjoy every moment of the ride.
Twice listed for the Booker International Prize and winner of numerous awards in France and beyond, Mabanckou’s writing has truly global influence. The second best experience of his work you can have beyond reading it is seeing him speak about it, and he’s long been a favourite on festival panels around the world. His visits to the UK are always a highlight for us, so we hope we can have him back to share his magic with audiences before too long (if you can’t wait, here’s a brilliant event he did with Etgar Keret and Nick Barley at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2015).
Watch, fall in love, then rush out to buy his books.
Maman Pauline says you should always wear clean clothes when you go out. She says the main thing people criticise is what you’re wearing; you can hide the rest, dirty underwear, for example, or socks with holes in.
So I’ve just changed my shirt and shorts.
Papa Roger is sitting under the mango tree, at the far end of our plot, busy listening to our national radio station, the Voice of the Congolese Revolution, which since yesterday afternoon has broadcast nothing but Soviet music.
Without turning round to look at me, he gives me my orders:
‘Michel, don’t dawdle on the way! Don’t forget your mother’s errands, my red wine, my tobacco, and don’t lose my change!’
He reminds me not to dawdle because I have a habit of stopping to drool over the cars of the black capitalists near the Avenue of Independence, as though I’ll never get another chance. I just stand there gazing at them, imagining one day I’ll buy one myself, I’ll hide it at night in a lock-up, guarded by bulldogs I’ve dosed with Johnnie Walker Red Label mixed with corn spirit to make them ten times more vicious than even the dogs that belong to the whites in the town centre. I get caught up in my thoughts, and forget all about Maman Pauline’s errands; I forget Papa Roger asked me for red wine and the tobacco powder he stuffs up his nostrils, making his eyes water.