The narrator here is a guy called Verre Cassé (or Broken Glass), and almost from the beginning of his narrative he gives the Republic of Congo's Minister of (Agri)culture's 'J'accuse' as nothing so elevated as Zola's accusations related to the Dreyfus case, but just someone defending the attacks levelled at the 'Le Credit a voyagé' bar and its boss L'Escargot entêté (lit. 'The Stubborn Snail'): the name of the bar (one meaning being something like 'This bar doesn't accept credit') is a reference to Louis-Ferdinand Céline's two novels Voyage au bout de la nuit and Mort à credit, and this underlines the nature of a novel that is resolutely literary, although also resolutely experimental as opposed to conventional.
L'Escargot entêté is also – no surprises – the title of a novel by the Algerian author Rachid Boudjedra. L'Escargot entêté (the character in Verre Cassé the novel) wants Verre Cassé the man and regular of his bar to write about the characters in it, to preserve the bar for ever. Verre Cassé takes L'Escargot entêté's notebook and starts casually interviewing the bar regulars, although he makes it known to the readers from the beginning that this will be no ordinary, ass-licking account.
But then the characters, the regulars in the bar, are far from ordinary. There's 'le type de Pampers', for a start, who wears four layers of adult diapers because of the homosexual abuse he suffered at the, er, hands of prisoners when he was unfairly jailed as a result of his wife's lies about him.
And then there's L'Imprimeur (the printer), who is accused of paedophilia by his wife, and is sent to the bin for it. Of course, his future is ruined.
Women aren't exactly seen as friendly partners in this book about failed, drunken males, but then there's Robinette (a female version of 'robinet' meaning 'tap'), who can piss for two whole minutes. But when she challenges newcomer Casimir to a pissing contest with the prize of him screwing her whenever and wherever he chooses, he wins genitals down, even 'writing' a map of France including Corsica into the bargain.
And we mustn't of course forget Verre Cassé himself, who has a serious drink problem, which is made worse by him losing his position as school teacher, as well as his wife ditching him. That's probably why in the end he decides, at the age of 64, to drown himself and join his mother in the River Tchinouka. But has something been lost by way of unreliable narrative? We'll never know.
As I suggested at the beginning of this post, there are many literary references in this book, which in fact includes a huge number of titles, the vast majority of them not indicated as titles but playfully embedded in the narrative, and of which the following are just a small number, and I've added the name of the author in brackets: Je m'en vais (Jean Echenoz); Apprendre à finir (Laurent Mauvignier); Orange méchanique (Anthony Burgess); Les Mains sales, Les Chemins de la liberté, and the expression 'l'enfer c'est les autres' from Huis Clos (Jean-Paul Sartre); Trop de soleil tue l'amour (Mongo Beti); L'Enfant noir (Camara Laye); À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (Marcel Proust); Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (Ousmane Sembene); La Cantatrice chauve (Eugene Ionesco) – also, like L'Escargot entêté, a character in the book; Journal d'un curé de compagne (Georges Bernanos); Chronique de la dérive douce, L'Odeur du café, and Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer (Dany Laferrière); Les Particules élémentaires (Michel Houellebecq); Requiem pour une nonne (William Faulkner); On ne badine pas avec l'amour (Musset); Le Paysan parvenu (Marivaux); Tartuffe, Le Malade imaginaire and Le Misanthrope (Molière); Vipère au poing (Hervé Bazin); Belle de seigneur (Albert Cohen); La Porte Étroite (André Gide); Les Enfants terribles (Jean Cocteau); La Vie devant soi (Romain Gary as 'Émil Ajar'); Querelle de Brest (Jean Genet), etc, etc. In addition, Mabanckou claims that Frédéric Dard (or San Antonio if you prefer) said 'Il faut battre le frère quand il est chauve' – meaning 'You've got to strike your brother when he's bald', instead of the traditional proverb 'Il faut battre le fer quand il est chaud' (or 'You've got to strike when the iron's hot'): this is a pun that just doesn't work in English, but gives some idea of the literary games in this book. Oh, and there's even a reference to Georges Moustaki with 'ma gueule de métèque'.
Oddly, I didn't notice a single reference to a female author, but surely there must be some? Still an amazing, hilarious book in spite of the lack of women.
My other posts on Alain Mabanckou:
Alain Mabanckou: Mémoires de porc-épic | Memoirs of a Porcupine
Alain Mabanckou: Lettre à Jimmy | Letter to Jimmy
Alain Mabanckou: Black Bazar | Black Bazaar