This piece was submitted by Alain Mabanckou as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
let’s say the boss of the bar Credit Gone West gave me this notebook to fill, he’s convinced that I—Broken Glass—can turn out a book, because one day, for a laugh, I told him about this famous writer who drank like a fish, and had to be picked up off the street when he got drunk, which shows you should never joke with the boss, he takes everything literally, when he gave me this notebook he said from the start it was only for him, no one else would read it, and when I asked why he was so set on this notebook, he said he didn’t want Credit Gone West just to vanish one day, and added that people in this country have no sense of the importance of memory, that the days when grandmothers reminisced from their death beds was gone now, this is the age of the written word, that’s all that’s left, the spoken word’s just black smoke, wild cat’s piss, the boss of Credit Gone West doesn’t like ready made phrases like “in Africa, when an old person dies, a library burns”, every time he hears that worn out cliché he gets mad, he’ll say “depends which old person, don’t talk crap, I only trust what’s written down”, so I thought I’d jot a few things down here from time to time, just to make him happy, though I’m not sure what I’m saying, I admit I’ve begun to quite enjoy it, I won’t tell him that, though, he’ll get ideas and start to push me to do more and more, and I want to be free to write when I want, when I can, there’s nothing worse than forced labour, I’m not his slave, I’m writing this for myself as well, that’s why I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when he reads these pages, I don’t intend to spare him or anyone else, by the time he reads this, though, I’ll no longer be a client of his bar, I’ll be dragging my bag of bones about some other place, just slip him the document quietly before I go, saying ‘mission accomplished’
i’ll start by describing the row that broke out when the bar first opened, explain a bit about the sufferings of the boss, some people wanted to see him taking his final breath, drawing up his Judas testament, it began with the Church people, who, seeing their Sunday congregations had dwindled, launched a holy war, flinging their Jerusalem Bibles at the door of Credit Gone Away, saying if things went on like this it would be the end of Sunday mass in our quartier, there’d be no more trances during the singing, no more Holy Spirit descending on the Trois-Cents, no more crispy black wafers, no more sweet wine, the blood of Christ, no more choir boys, no more pious sisters, no more candles, no more alms, no more first communion, no more second communion, no more catechism, no more baptism, no more anything, and everyone would go straight to hell, and after that the Weekend-and-Bank-Holiday-Cuckolds Club waded in, claiming it was largely due to Credit Gone Away that their wives no longer cooked for them properly, or respected them as wives did in the old days, they said respect was important, that no one respects a husband like a wife does, that’s always been the way of things, ever since Adam and Eve, and as good family men they saw no reason to change, let their wives continue to grovel and cringe, to follow men’s orders, all this they said, but it had no effect, and then we had threats from some old club of ex-alcoholics, who’d gone over to water, Fanta, Pulp’Orange, syrup, Senegalese jungle juice, grapefruit juice and contra-band Cola-lite traded for hashish in Nigeria, a righteous band of brothers who set siege to the bar for forty days and forty nights, but again all in vain, and then there was some mystical action from the guardians of traditional moral values, the tribal leaders with their gris-gris, which they flung at the door of the bar, casting curses at the boss of Credit Gone Away, summoning up the voices of the dead, bringing forth prophecies, saying the barkeeper would die a slow and painful death, they would nudge him gently towards to his own scaffold, but that didn’t work either, and finally there was direct action from a group of thugs who were paid by some old codgers from the quartier, nostalgic for the days of the Case de Gaulle, for the life of a houseboy, the life of the faithful Negro with his service medal, for the days of the Colonial Exhibition and the Negro Balls, with Josephine Baker leaping about in a skirt made out of bananas, and these paragons of respectability set snares without end for the boss, with their thugs in hoods who came at the dead of night, at the darkest hour, armed with iron bars from Zanzibar, with clubs and cudgels from mediaeval Christendom, poisoned spears from the time of Chaka Zulu, sickles and hammers from the Communist bloc, catapults from the Hundred Years War, gallic bill hooks, pygmy hoes, Molotov cocktails from May ’68, machetes left over from a killing spree in Rwanda, slings from the famous fight between David and Goliath, with all this heavy arsenal they came, but again, in vain, though they managed to destroy one part of the bar, and it was the talk of the town, and all over the papers, La Rue Qui Meurt, La Semaine Africaine, Mwinda, Mouyondzi Tribune, tourists even came from neighbouring countries to get a close look, like pilgrims at the Wailing Wall, taking masses of photos, like tourists, I don’t know what for, but even so, they took photos, and some of them even came from our own town, people who’d never set foot in the Trois-Cents before, and were amazed to discover it, and wondered how on earth people could live quite happily surrounded by rubbish, pools of stagnant water, the carcasses of domestic animals, burned out vehicles, slime, dung, gaping holes in the roads, houses on the point of collapse, and our barman gave interviews all over the place, our barman became a martyr overnight, and our barman sprang up on every tv channel overnight, and spoke in the lingala of the north, in the munukutuba of the people of the Mayombe forest, in the bembé of the inhabitants of the bridge of Mouloukoulu, who settle all their disputes with a knife, and now everybody knew him, suddenly he was famous, people felt sorry for him, they wanted to help him, and even sent letters of support and petitions on behalf of the good guy they started to call ‘The Stubborn Snail’, but the ones who really backed him were the drunks, who always stay loyal till the last bottle runs dry, and they decided to strike back and rolled up their sleeves to put right the damage caused by the people nostalgic for the days of the Colonial Exhibition, the Case de Gaulle, Josephine Baker’s Negro Balls, and for some this trivial matter became a national issue, they called it ‘the Credit Gone Away Affair’, the government discussed it in cabinet, and certain leading politicians called for its immediate and permanent closure, while others opposed such a move, for scarcely more convincing reasons, and the country suddenly found itself divided over this petty spat until, with the authority and wisdom for which he became renowned, the Minister for Agriculture, Commerce and Small and Large Businesses, Albert Zou Loukia, raised his voice in a memorable contribution to the debate, a contribution now regarded in these parts as one of the finest political speeches ever made, Minister Zou Loukia spoke, saying several times, ‘I accuse, I accuse’, a remark so stupifyingly brilliant that at the slightest excuse—a minor dispute, or some slight injustice—people in the street started saying ‘I accuse’, and even the head of government told his spokesman that the Minister for Agriculture was a fine speaker, and that his popular catch-phrase ‘I accuse’, would go down in history, and the Prime Minister promised that in the next reshuffle the Minister for Agriculture would be given the portfolio for Culture, all you had to do was cross out the first four letters of ‘agriculture’, and to this very day it is widely agreed that the minister’s speech was quite brilliant, quoting entire pages from books by the kind of great writers people like to quote at the dinner table, sweating as he always did when he was proud of having seduced an audience with his erudition, and that is how he came to defend Credit Gone Away, first praising the initiative of The Stubborn Snail, who he knew very well as they’d been at primary school together, and then summing up by saying—I quote from memory: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen of Cabinet, I accuse, I wish to distance myself from our current moribund social climate, I refuse to condone this witch hunt by my presence in the government, I accuse the shabby treatment meted out to a man who has done no more than draw up a route map for his own existence, I accuse the cowardly and retrograde machinations we have witnessed in recent times, I accuse the uncivil nature of these barbarous acts, orchestrated by men of bad faith, I accuse the indecency and insubordination which have become common currency in this country, I accuse the sly complicity of all those who arm the thugs, I accuse man’s contempt for his fellow man, the want of tolerance, the abandon of our values, the rising tide of hatred, the inertia of the individual conscience, the slimy toads in our midst and all around us, yes, Ladies and Gentlemen of Cabinet, just look at how the Trois-Cents has become a sleepless fortress, with a face of stone, while the man we now call Stubborn Snail, quite apart from the fact that he’s an old school friend of mine, and a very intelligent man, this man who today is being hounded is the victim of a cabal, Ladies and Gentlemen of Cabinet, let us concentrate instead on the pursuit of real criminals, whereby I accuse those who with impunity paralyse the proper function of our institutions, those who openly break the chain of solidarity which we have inherited from our ancestors, the Bantu, I tell you the only crime of the Stubborn Snail, is to have shown his fellow countrymen that each one of us, in his own way, can contribute to the transformation of human nature, just as the great Saint Exupéry has shown us in his work ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’ and that is why I accuse, and will go on accusing forever.”
The day after Minister Zou Loukia’s speech, the President of the Republic himself, Adrien Loukouta Eleki Mingi, flew into a rage, stamping his favourite daily dessert of grapes beneath his feet, and we were informed by Radio-Curbside FM that President Adrien Lokouta Eleki Mingi, who also happened to be general of the armies, was jealous of the Minister of Agriculture’s phrase ‘I accuse’, indeed, he wished he had said it himself, and couldn’t understand why his own advisors hadn’t come up with a similarly short but snappy catchphrase, instead of feeding him turgid set pieces along the lines of ‘All things, like the Sun, rise on the distant horizon and set each evening over the majestic Congo river”, so President Adrien Lokuta Eleki Mingi, in his vexation, mortification, degradation, humiliation and frustration, called a meeting of the supposedly devoted bunch of Negroes in his cabinet and bid them slave as they’d never slaved before, he was through with turgid set pieces dressed up in so-called lyrical language, and the Negroes in his cabinet leaped to attention and lined up, from the smallest to the tallest, like the Daltons in Lucky Luke, when he’s tracking them through the cactus plains of the Wild West, and the negroes all said as one man ‘yes sir, Commandant sir,’ when in fact President Adrien Lokuta Eleki Mingi was a general of the armies, and was longing for civil war to break out between north and south so he could write his war memoirs and give them the modest title ‘Memoirs of Hadrien’, and the President and General of the armies called on them to find him a phrase that would be remembered by posterity as Minister Zou Loukia’s ‘I accuse’ would be, and the Negroes in the presidential cabinet worked all night long, behind closed doors, opening up and looking through—for the first time ever—encyclopaedias which stood gathering dust on the presidential bookshelves, they looked in large books with tiny writing, they worked their way back to the dawn of time, back through the age of some guy called Gutenberg, and back through the age of Egyptian hieroglyphics as far back as the writings of some Chinaman who it seems had a lot to say about the art of war and was supposed to have been alive in the days before anyone knew that Christ was going to be born by the power of the Holy Spirit and lay down his life for us sinners, but Adrien’s negroes could find nothing as good as Minister Zou Loukia’s ‘I accuse’, so the President and General of the armies threatened to sack the entire cabinet, unless they found him a phrase for posterity, and said: ‘Why should I go on paying a bunch of idiots who can’t find me a decent enduring and memorable slogan, I’m warning you now, if I don’t have my slogan by the time the cock crows tomorrow at dawn, heads will roll like rotten mangoes, that’s all you are, the lot of you, rotten mangoes, let me tell you, you can start packing now, go into exile in some Catholic country, take your pick, exile or death, d’you hear me, starting now, no one leaves this palace as of this moment, I’m going to sit in my office and I don’t want to pick up even the slightest whiff of coffee, not to mention cigars, Cohibas or Montecristos, there’ll be no water, no sandwiches, nothing, zilch, niente, it’ll be healthy eating all round, till I get my personal slogan, and anyway how did this little nobody of a minister Zou Loukia come up with his “I accuse” that everyone’s talking about, eh, the Presidential Security Services tell me there are even babies being called ‘I accuse’, and what about those young girls on heat getting it tattooed onto their backsides and the clients who, in an ironic twist, demand that the prostitutes have it, you’ll appreciate, I think, what a colossal fuck-up this represents, it’s not even as if it was rocket science to think up in the first place, a phrase like that, are the minister for Agriculture’s negroes better that you, eh, do you realise, I wonder, that his negroes don’t even have an official car each, they get the ministry bus, they live off pitiful salaries, while you loll about here in the palace, swimming in my pool, drinking my champagne, sitting about watching foreign tv on cable, listening to their lies about me, eating my petit-fours, eating my salmon and my caviar, strolling about in my garden, taking your mistresses skiing on my artificial snow slopes, I’m surprised you don’t sleep with my twenty wives, I start to wonder why I even have a cabinet, is that what I pay you for, to sit around here all day doing nothing, eh, why don’t I just hire my own stupid dog as head of cabinet, tell me that, you bunch of good-for-nothings’, and President Adrien Lokouta Eleki Mingi walked out slamming the door of cabinet behind him, still shouting ‘you bunch of Negroes, things are going to change in this palace, I’ve had it with fattening up slavering slugs like you, let’s start judging by results, to think some of you went to ENA and the ecoles polytechniques, ENA my arse!’
the negroes of the cabinet set about their arduous task with a Chaka Zulu spear and a sword of Damocles dangling over their heads while the palace walls still echoed with the president’s final words, and around midnight, since they still hadn’t thought of anything—there’s plenty of petrol in this country, but not many ideas, it naturally occurred to them to phone a well-known member of the Académie française who was apparently the only black person in the history of this august assembly, and everyone applauded this last-minute idea, and everyone said the academician in question would consider it a further honour, so they wrote him a long letter full of smoothly phrased imperfect subjunctives, and even some particularly moving passages composed in classical alexandrines with identical rhymes, they checked it carefully for punctuation, they didn’t want to be sneered at by the academicians, who would take any opportunity to prove their use to the world, besides handing out the Top Prize for novels, and the president’s negroes almost came to blows over it, because some of them said there should be a semi-colon in place of a comma and others didn’t agree and wanted to keep the comma to move the phrase up into fifth gear, and those in the latter camp stuck to their point even though it was contradicted by a certain Adolphe Thomas in the Dictionary of Difficulties in the French Language, whose view supported that of the first camp, and the second camp refused to yield and the point of all this was to get on the right side of the black academician who, as they were humbly aware, was one of the first ever Doctors of French Grammar from the African continent, and everything might have passed off smoothly if Adrien’s negroes hadn’t then said that the academician would be slow to reply, the spear of Chaka Zulu and the sword of Damocles would come down on them before they received word from the Coupole, which is the name given to the onion dome beneath which these immortal sages sit listening to the distant babble of the French language and decree absolutely that such and such a text is the degree zero of all writing, but there was another reason why the negroes beat a retreat, one member of the cabinet, who’d come top in his year at the ENA and owned the complete works of the black academician in question, pointed out that he had already produced a phrase for posterity, ‘reason is Greek, emotion is black’, as an ENA graduate himself he explained to his colleagues that actually the academician couldn’t come up with a second slogan because posterity isn’t like the court of King Petaud where nobody’s boss and anarchy rules, you only get one chance to coin a phrase, otherwise it’s all just hollow chatter, much ado about nothing, that’s why phrases that go down in History are short, sharp and to the point, and since such phrases survive through legends, centuries and millennia, people unfortunately forget who the true authors were, and fail to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s
This piece is excerpted from Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou, Serpent’s Tail (UK, 2009) and Soft Skull Press (US, 2010).