This is my review of “Le Petit Piment” by Alain Mabanckou .
What at first seems like memories of a childhood spent in a Congolese orphanage gradually becomes more surreal, proving by the end to be a kind of fable. A savage indictment of the brutal, corrupt, superstition-ridden and hypocritical regime of Congo-Brazzaville, it employs irony, farce and imaginative, no-holds-barred verve to make its point. The narrator Moïse, nicknamed “Petit Piment” for his unorthodox method of dealing with a couple of bullies, befriends a fellow pupil called Bonaventure in the orphanage that mirrors the failings of the wider society of which they are both victims. Whereas Moses becomes more aggressive over time, pursuing a life of crime in order to survive, Bonaventure remains naïve and detached, yet both are eventually judged mad in a crazy world.
The novel has an authentic ring, perhaps because the author grew up in Pointe-Noire, the coastal town he describes so vividly. I like the flights of fancy as when Mabanckou reeks off a list of particular food preferences by region, each deplored by all the rest: the Lari eat caterpillars, the Vili adore shark, the Tékés go for dog, and the northern tribes consume crocodile, despite regarding the reptile as sacred. Later on, the author’s imagination runs riot with various remedies supplied by a local healer to cure Petit Piment’s mental problems: cricket’s urine, green mamba’s blood, toad’s saliva, elephant hair mixed with kaolin and sparrow droppings.
I found the style hard-going at times: initially slow-paced, with too much repetition and explanation of events in somewhat unrealistic dialogues as when, sent to the school infirmary to give Moses his medication, assistant Sabine Niangui launches into a lengthy, intimate description of her early life. Events often seem disjointed, and new characters tend to be introduced too abruptly only to disappear as suddenly. Together with the casual violence and frank approach to bodily functions, this may reflect the reality of an orphan’s life, or the general state of affairs in the Congo, but the very prolific Mabanckou does not seem to have the time or inclination to fine-tune his work. Towards the end it is as if he has lost interest in the story, bringing it to a rapid, neatly contrived yet also open-ended conclusion.
Some may enjoy the picaresque inventiveness, but having made its point about the Kafka- meets-1984 state of the Congo, it did not hold my interest, as anything more than an opportunity to practise reading in French.