Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Memoirs of a Porcupine by Alain Mabanckou (4.5/5)

First published: 2006
Original title: Mémoires de porc-épic
Original language: French
Translation to English by: Helen Stevenson, 2011

Page count: 154

The back says: ‘So I’m just a wild animal, men would say, since they only believe what they see, but for years I was the double of Kibandi... I carried out my orders to the letter, even though towards the end I began to step back a bit, thinking we were digging out own graves, but I was stuck with my role, as a turtle is lumbered with his shell... Kibandi died the day before yesterday, so here is my confession...’

All human beings, goes an African legend, have an animal double. Freed of his master, this porcupine is ready to tell all in his memoir. With sly references to Poe, Hemingway and Faulkner, Mabanckou teases and plays with African folklore.

I say: What a wonderful and unexpected tour de force this was.

A dark fable about a man’s descent into conceit and violence told by his double, a porcupine, to a tree.


However random that sounds, this was poignant, thought provoking and full of humour. The legend says that there are two types of doubles, peaceful and harmful, and this porcupine is a harmful double, meaning he can do harm to any person his human points out. After going through a ceremony with his father, Kibandi is connected with the porcupine, who lives in the woods with his kind until he hears the calling. One of the harms that a double can do is to “eat” – i.e. kill – another human being, and when Kibandi’s father is suspected of 99 deaths in the village, and finally hunted down and killed, Kibandi and his mother move.

The porcupine tagging along, of course.

While waiting for Kibandi to call for him, the porcupine learns to read and amuses himself with books and musings on the differences between men and animals. Soon enough Kibandi feels wronged by someone and summons his double for revenge.

Dun dun dun...

There are no periods in this entire novel, only commas, which annoyed me at first but I quickly got over it, even though I sometimes had to re-read a few lines to mentally insert a full stop in order to make sense of what was being said. The prose is best described as a simple elegance; it flows with ease, but is linguistically imaginative.

I fell in love.

Although I have previously noted that I am not a big fan of magical realism, Mabanckou makes this work beautifully, weaving Congolese folklore and modernity. It’s an allegory of what the notion of invincibility can lead to – simply put – and how people often fail to learn from history.

4.5/5 because of the silly and extremely unnecessary Appendix.

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