Its ebullient humour recalls Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty, Mabanckou’s fictionalised autobiography of growing up in the 1970s under a Marxist-Leninist regime. Yet unlike in that buoyantly mischievous child’s-eye satire, the laughter here has an undertow of grief, outrage and survivor’s guilt ... [a] picaresque tour-de-force ... Mabanckou’s indignation at times recalls Wizard of the Crow, Ng?g? wa Thiong’o’s grotesque satire on dictatorship and kleptocracy – together with its spirit of resistance and hope of salvation. Yet there is also a touching personal homage in this retelling of the lives of some of those unable to escape the asylum.
The narrator of Black Moses is among the most heartbreaking of Mabanckou’s creations ... Deftly translated by Helen Stevenson, Black Moses abounds with moments of dark humor, but the levity is balanced by Mabanckou’s portrait of a dysfunctional society rent by corruption, poverty, political instability and tribal rivalries. Underlying the narrative is a bitter sense of irony: This black Moses is no agent of deliverance; he’s just another lost soul wandering the streets of a hardscrabble town, with no promised land in sight.
The first-person narration in this long [first] section is a somewhat uneasy blend of boarding-school drama joined up to excurses on Congolese social life and ethnic tensions; the reader feels the point of view blur between that of the boy Moses and the adult who looks back upon boyhood ... When the good Maman and her business are eviscerated by a corrupt politician’s clean-up drive, Little Pepper is orphaned once more—and this time it is too much for him...It is here, for the first time in the book, that Mr. Mabanckou’s narration rings with a beautiful poetry, notes not on a madcap world but a private universe of genuine madness and misanthropy ... One could argue that with Black Moses Mr. Mabanckou has exhausted the possibilities of a certain scattershot narrative method. Despite the promise of the material, he often cannot prevent his storytelling here from lapsing into mere mannerism. The confessional first-person narration, the walk-on monologues of minor characters, the slangy dialogue sprinkled with exclamation marks, all seem a little hungover.
For all the novel’s humor, Moses himself is a cautionary if not tragic figure. The latter sections of Black Moses turn on his loss of memory and the inability of either neuropsychologists or folk healers to repair the damage done to him. His amnesia might be real, but it’s also a symbol for his cultural condition — stateless, parentless, tribeless, faithless ... Making this point while preserving a sense of humor is a tough trick, and in the early pages Mabanckou (via his translator, Helen Stevenson) doesn’t seem entirely up to the task — the prose is more dryly expository than brightly quixotic. But once Moses’ essential conflicts emerge — church versus state, good versus bad, family versus isolation — the brief novel gains liftoff, as pointed as it is funny.
We get glimpses of the political changes through Moses, the book’s main character and narrator, who, when we first meet him, is a well-meaning thirteen year old orphan in the countryside just outside of Pointe-Noire … The book is funny and tear-inducing because the first-person, reportage style of the writing shows such a singular view of the world through an adolescent’s — then young man’s — then madman’s — eyes … The world of this book is multi-ethnic and multilingual, so retaining foreign words for the English reader is a strategic fidelity. For the American English reader, phrases like ‘laughed like a drain’ further texture the translation, reminding the reader that, as Mabanckou said about Congolese rhythms in French, every language exceeds its national borders.
Black Moses adds to his cycle of novels set in Pointe-Noire, the coastal city where he grew up. Any of these novels makes a fine introduction to the author. Or one could start with Letters to Jimmy, his book-length essay on James Baldwin, approached from an African perspective ...the protagonist of Black Moses is defined by the absence of family. The book is split in two. The first half is set in the orphanage where the protagonist lives until age 13, and the second in Pointe-Noire, following the years after his escape ...Mabanckou populates his tale with a range of colorful supporting characters who tell the narrator their stories...Mabanckou’s handling of time produces breaks and accelerations that make readers share in the narrator’s own sense of dislocation and inevitability.
Black Moses exhibits all the charm, warmth and verbal brio that have won the author of Broken Glass and African Psycho so many admirers—and the informal title of Africa’s Samuel Beckett. Helen Stevenson, his translator, again shakes Mr Mabanckou’s cocktail of sophistication and simplicity into richly idiomatic English.
This ribald, acerbic, and poignant coming-of-age story throws open a window to an African nation’s struggle for maturity ... Though no dates are provided, those familiar with the tumultuous history of Congo-Brazzaville in the 20th century are able to figure out that the disruptions and upheavals in Moses’ life occur in tandem with the ascent of the country’s totalitarian, repressive, and often corrupt politics in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. But it’s not necessary to know such details to appreciate Mabanckou’s narrative ingenuity and his authoritative compassion toward his people’s history, both collective and personal. This tightly contained, densely packed story issues a challenge that never loses its urgency: how does a person cling to a sense of autonomy when it’s under siege by so many powerful forces?