How does a writer come to prominence? Why is one selected and another not? The issue of ambition is one that underpins the history of literature, whether we like or not. There is, of course, a romantic notion that the cream always rises to the top. That greatness will out. However, the history of “great” literature is littered with figures whose worth was never appreciated in their day, from Clare to Kafka. On the other hand, it is also riddled with figures who convinced their contemporaries of their worth, only to find their stocks diminishing year by year with the passing of history.
That this issue should be raised in the context of Mabanckou’s novel might seem unlikely. The novel adopts tropes associated with the African novel (episodic/ stream of consciousness) to weave a circuitous narrative around the figure of the book’s fictional author, the eponymous Broken Glass. The novel is in fact his notebook, as he documents the figures who people a downtown Congolese bar, Credit Gone West. These portraits are unsympathetic, even crude, composed in a relentless prose laden with scatological imagery. In the second part of the book, the narrator turns the spotlight on himself, revealing his own sorry story and descent into an alcoholic stupor.
Much of this, for anyone who has read any twentieth/ twenty first century African literature is rudimentary. In interviews, the author acknowledges a debt to Amos Tutuola, Ngũgĩ' and others. However, the author adopts a particular device of his own for his protagonist. His narrator is a disgraced teacher, an educated man. This education peppers the text, with direct and ongoing references to the history of literature, from Marquez to Zola. At times the novel becomes almost an intra-textual crossword, an act of bricollage, if one wanted to push the academic context further.
Which is where we come back to the theme of ambition. Mabanckou’s extravagant use of textual references, (as well as the somewhat self-conscious decision to dispense with the full stop), seems redolent of a writer proclaiming his presence upon the stage. There are various ways this could be interpreted. Firstly: the work of African literature sits within a context of the history of the novel which is all too often negated. Secondly: you might fail to take me seriously because of my origins (a justifiable complaint) but my erudition will demand your respect. Thirdly: mine is an African voice which the “western” reader can connect with.
Whichever is the right interpretation, this intertexuality would also seem to reveal the author’s ambition, an ambition that has propelled him to the forefront of the contemporary African literary scene. As the reader might have gleaned, the reviewer is unsure exactly what to make of Broken Glass, a novel which perhaps flatters to deceive, which at times seems to be more concerned with positioning itself than going about the business of being a novel. But at the same time, this is a writer with a serious intent, and it will be intriguing to see how Mabanckou’s literary career evolves.