Broken Glass, By Alain Mabanckou

Magical tales from a bar in Africa

Peter Carty
Thursday 09 April 2009 00:00 BST

When life lets you down, all that's left is to get drunk and spin a few stories. This is an unusually shaggy collection. Its origin is a drinking den in Brazzaville, capital of the former French colony of the Republic of the Congo. The bar is called Credit Gone Away, a clue to its sleazy charms. The same applies to our eponymous narrator, handed a notebook by the owner with a request that his dive's glories – or atrocities – are recorded.

"Broken Glass" proves to be an obsessive, slyly playful, raconteur. Some of his tales are about the patrons, others mock politicians and worthies, and one or two concern his own misadventures. They all twist in fantastical directions and several draw upon the more scurrilous strands of the Francophone canon: one of the finest vignettes is a pissing contest that could come from Rabelais.

Alongside crates of bottles, the pages are littered with erudite references. A number are straightforward – a name-check for Saint-Exupéry, a soupçon of Molière – others are more allusive. Translated by Helen Stevenson, the prose runs wild to weave endless sentences, their rhythm and pace attuned to the narrator's rhetorical extravagances. Most stories end in tears. The barfly who flutters off to France ends up in an asylum. Everyone's dreams must turn to ordure. This is a work of rambunctiously feel-bad fiction.

Mabanckou's novel African Psycho was limited by its central, perhaps overly derivative, conceit. This one is more diffuse, but both aim their shafts at a parlous society dominated by poverty, corruption and an incorrigible faith in magic.

Mabanckou – now resident in Los Angeles – positions himself at the margins, tapping the tradition founded by Céline, Genet and other subversive writers. His bursts of grandiloquent magical realism are a promising approach for a region where realism and naturalism have become blunted in the face of intractable problems. The accompanying humour, too, is welcome. With his sourly comic recollections, Broken Glass makes a fine companion.

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