Alain Mabanckou’s “Black Moses” is about being orphaned. That’s not just because the main character is an orphan or because the book starts out in an orphanage. It’s also the story of a people who have lost their roots and their parentage, told with a measure of humor and a double measure of tragedy.
The story is set in and near Pointe-Noire, an Atlantic port in the Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the bordering Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire). The title character’s full name is “Thanks Be to God, the Black Moses Is Born on the Earth of Our Ancestors.” People call him Pepper.
His full name wasn’t bestowed by his parents, of whom he knows nothing. It was the conceit of a Catholic priest who clearly had high hopes for him, since the biblical Moses, abandoned and raised by others, grew up to lead the children of Israel out of slavery. But if the priest had hopes that Moses would lead his people out of their enslavement and degradation, he was fooling himself.
The priest tries to teach the children indigenous dances — mostly Zairean Pygmy. It’s an attempt to recover a modicum of African culture, but in an incongruous way, since the culture the children are taught isn’t the culture of their ancestors. In any case, he is soon barred from the orphanage; the government has changed and now the children are taught to be Socialist Pioneers, which mostly consists of memorizing the sayings of the president. History, mythology and ideology become ways of manipulating people or justifying the regime in power.
The orphanage is run under a system of brutal patronage, in which the director’s relatives are the administrative staff. When one teacher tries to address the fear the children have of the big city he is soon fired: “The Director explained … that our history teacher was an imposter who incited the children to run away … and taught them to hate the Vili [an ethnic group that had supported the losing side in the country’s civil war], putting it about that they had collaborated with Whites in the slave trade … Another history teacher … replaced him. He was White, and taught us French history.” Regardless of the formal curriculum, the real lessons are that these children have no value and no future.
Moses escapes and embarks on a picaresque journey, starting by joining a street gang in Pointe-Noire. Mabanckou reinforces the sense of cultural orphanage in this episode — one of the leaders of a rival gang styles himself “Robin Hood,” even going so far as to wear a green hood and carry a bow and arrows — but, of course, he robs from the rich and poor alike. Moses eventually finds a kind of family by becoming a go-fer in a brothel populated with women from neighboring Zaire. But his fragile connection to society is destroyed when the mayor of Pointe-Noire campaigns against “Zairean whores,” eventually bulldozing their house and burying most of the women in a mass grave.
Mabanckou effectively portrays a society that has been so disrupted by colonialism and suffused with invasive ideas that it has lost almost all moral compass. A few people, including Moses at times, are kind and compassionate; but mostly people are as lost as he is, or else simply out for their own profit. Again and again, people try to live by Western ideas out of context, such as Marxism-Leninism or French psychology. Pepper’s neighbor loves to garden, but his ideas about gardening are all based on an 18th century French gardening book.
At the end, Moses goes mad, and the somewhat sardonic humor of the chapters about his teenage years turn to unrelenting grief. He wanders the streets of the city, unable to remember where he lives or where he’s been. He tries to keep track of his path by making signs on the ground, but members of his former gang harass him by marking the same signs in places he hasn’t been, so that eventually he’s hopelessly lost. He is treated both by a Western-educated psychiatrist and a native shaman. Both treatments are useless.
Finally, in a kind of double acknowledgement to Western culture and his own name, he dons a green hood, although, “I didn’t ride on horseback, and I didn’t have a bow.” He notes that “[The biblical] Moses was forty, the age I was then, when … he killed an Egyptian foreman who was attacking an Israelite.” This Moses kills the man who ordered the destruction of the brothel. He is committed to an asylum built on the site of his orphanage, where he finds a friend he left behind when he escaped; he knows him, because, after all these years, the friend is still waiting for an airplane to land and take him away.
Mabanckou leaves the reader with little hope for his characters, or, metaphorically, for the prospects for modern African society. All anyone can do, he implies, is wait for a real solution to come along; but there’s no sense that anyone knows what that could be or when it could happen.
Read the full May 31 issue. Like this book review? View past reviews.