Tuesday, March 03, 2009

African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou

Alain Mabanckou's African Psycho (translated by Christine Schwartz Hartley) is disturbing, dark, and funny. The author is French-Congolese, and his work has been highly praised in France and Francophone Africa for this and other works. African Psycho has been compared to Nabokov, Dostoievsky, and Camus (not so much to Brett Easton Ellis, in spite of the title) but it owes as much to Amos Tutuola's great Palm Wine Drinkard, especially in the very funny hyphenated place names (the neighborhood in which the story takes place is called He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot, because of the residents' drinking habits) and the folk-tale-meets-serial-killer-novel quality of the book. The narrative is a monologue by a young man named Greg (or Grégoire) who idolizes his country's only serial killer, Angoualima. The first sections of the book take Greg through his orphaned childhood and his growing fascination with the serial killer; from there, we see Greg's first attempts at violence (an attack on a real estate agent and a young woman--both brutal but neither achieving his murderous intent) and his plan for the murder of a woman named Germaine, as announced in the first words of the novel. Greg begins to have dialogues with the deceased Angoualima at his grave: conversations in which the dead killer is part psychotherapist and part self-absorbed psychopath. If it all sounds hallucinatory, it is, and Greg's imagination is brutal and ugly. But Greg is also the Woody Allen of serial killers, and the combination of all these elements is fascinating and funny, while also being ironic and obsessive, frightening and mesmerizing. The narrator refers disparagingly to crime fiction that begins with a corpse and ends with a solution, and though most of what he says can be taken as irony, in this statement he accurately assesses his own story as different from crime fiction. Mabanckou is writing about horrors of the human soul and contemporary global culture in the language of crime fiction (because that's the most effective vehicle for taking about those horrors) and in the mode of comedy (because that's the only mode that can deal with these horrors without despair).

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