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Is the Black Man sobbing?

May 2, 2012

Image I have wanted to read this book ever since I heard the writer being interviewed, some will say grilled, on the Afrique Presse program on TV5.  Alas, alas, the interview is in French, and the book is in French, with a translation in English yet to be announced.  But a good book has to be shared… The title, Le Sanglot de l’Homme Noir, is loosely adapted from the title of one of Pascal Bruckner’s books, Le Sanglot de l’Homme Blanc (The Sob of the White Man), and the 11 other chapters which make up this book, get their titles from seminal novels, mainly by African writers, although a few French authors figure. Concerning this sobbing, Alain Mabanckou defines it as the tendency by some Africans to explain all the ills of the African continent through its contact with Europe.  Throughout the 12 chapters that form the book, this theme is discussed in various forms. So in “Un Negre a Paris” or A Nigger in Paris, he illustrates that point with a conversation he had with a citizen from the Central African Republic bemoaning the difficulty of life for Black People in Paris, evidenced by the fact that he’s had to abandon his dreams of becoming a Literature teacher to take the job France reserves for its “niggers”. “So France has a job reserved for Black people?” Alain Mabanckou asked. “Security,” the Centrafican replies a little while later, after having pointed out to the author how out of touch he is with the realities of life in France now that he lives in that wonderful United States where Black people are respected and where they can move up in life, even if they sport dreadlocks! It is in that United States that he wants to send his sons to, and Alain Mabanckou makes that point in the “Chemin d’Europe” or “Road of Europe” chapter where he narrates the fact that when he was a child in Congo-Brazzaville, he and his friends wanted to go to Europe; that place where they were convinced all their dreams would be fulfilled.  That conviction has not died with Mr Mabanckou and his friends, for in 1999, two young Guineans, aged 14 and 15, were found dead in the undercarriage of the plane they smuggled themselves on.  The letter which they were carrying is reproduced at the end of the book. Alain Mabanckou does not assume that this lamentation is born in a void; he recognizes that the prejudices of some Europeans can cause that.  He speaks of his own experience as a student in France where his way of speaking French was ridiculed by the French-born students: apparently he spoke like he was writing a book.  Or what about that time at the airport where another French citizen was insistent about knowing his real origins, because he had to be Franco-something, non?  Or what about the tendency of the White Man to correct the faults of the foreigner, BY SHOUTING – the foreigner does not hear so well. Although he mentions these incidents, it seems he only does so to demonstrate that he is not unaware of them.  His concern however is: “So now what?” 

The only argument he brought up and, which made me think “Aren’t you being a bit hard, Mr Mabanckou?” was when he alluded to the fact that some Africans in France did not know that they could request the French nationality – this was when he was a Law student and the laws on naturalisation were yet to become stringent.

“They looked at me like I was an illuminate.”

Of course, Mr Mabanckou, to them you were, I thought.  Every immigrant has different concerns, and as he himself writes:

Apart from the skin colour, what is the common denominator between an African student of Political Science, an illegal immigrant from West Africa, a Haitian refugee or a citizen from one of the Outre-Mer territories?

And he goes to answer: Nothing

I did enjoy this book.  I was a bit worried it might be one of those bulky books written in tiny fonts; the type of books that seem to say, in your quest for enlightenment, thou shall experience blindness, or brain fatigue.  I read the book in a day. I also enjoyed the book for the questions it posed, and isn’t that the role of literature and the role of writers?  There was in fact a wonderful quote in the book about writers, and here it is: We write because “something isn’t quite right”, because we would like to move mountains, or make an elephant pass through the eye of a needle. (translation mine) And so, that’s it.  To my Francophone readers, let me know what you think/thought, and to the rest, I will be sure to update should an English translation be in works.

  1. I am currently obsessed with Alain Mabanckou as well (I don’t think it’s healthy). Haven’t read any of his works but I’ve been dying to for the longest time – they’re all on my amazon wishlist and I’m just waiting for the day I can have them all. ‘Is the Black Man sobbing?’ sounds great. Such a shame it’s not in English yet. One of the sad things about not being bilingual – missing out on some great works, if they’re not translated into English. Here’s to hoping it does … eventually.

    • You must read him – I’m yet to read any of his translated work but if they stay faithful to his texts as he writes them in French, prepare to burst out laughing, which will be OK if you are nowhere in public.

      As for the comment about not being bi-lingual, I was telling a girlfriend a while ago how I wanted to learn another language.

      Why? she asked.
      So I can get to read more books.

      What can I say?

  2. I will bear that in mind if I ever decide to read his stuff in public – contain myself. I’ve been wanting to learn French for a while now and that’s actually been one of the reasons why – to be exposed to books and other cultures I might be missing. I do fear that even if I am ever able to speak french, I might not be able to read it.

  3. Well it took me 10 years to learn English, and I am still learning the language, so get started. It also helps that I now live here, so what can I do but learn! I started with watching cartoons, then I moved very quickly, you guessed it! to children’s books and other books in general. This is why I love books; this ability to teach you, not only words but the place you are reading about

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