Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A history of (talking about) violence — African Psycho

How to discuss this without plot spoilers? How to enumerate everything Alain Mabanckou makes fun of in his inside-the-killer's-head novel African Psycho?

Mabanckou satirizes much: the novel's ne'er-do-well country, its talk-too-much protagonist, and the protagonist's neighborhood, He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot. The unnamed country's pontificating and sensationalistic media come in for some jabs, too, though Mabanckou is too wide-ranging a satirist to fall into the easy and fashionable media bashing so prevalent in America these days. He has just as much fun at the expense of credulous folks who crave the attention of those very same media.

Foremost among those attention seekers is the novel's protagonist and narrator, Grégoire Nakobomayo. African Psycho narrates Grégoire's plan to commit a murder that will elevate him to the stature of Great Master Angoulaima. That killer and rapist could, according to the legends that encrust his name, change his shape at will, among other supernatural properties, and Grégoire worships him, visiting the Great Master's grave to seek inspiration and to commune with his spirit. That spirit is unafraid to chide Grégoire for his feckless dawdling, and these ghostly, graveside scoldings provide several funny passages.

Grégoire settles upon a prostitute as his target, working his way up to the act with a hammer attack on a corrupt notary and real estate dealer and a sexual assault on a nurse. Both are described in some detail, and the latter especially may disturb some readers.

That's where the novel's title comes in. It plays off that of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, vilified for its affectless depictions of horrific violence. The culmination of African Psycho raises the question of whether such vilification is misplaced, whether it confuses literary depiction and legendary accounts of violent act with the acts themselves.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

It is a hard book to talk about without spoilers. But it is also one of the most disturbing books I've ever read (as as far as I know Alain is a man). I felt my brain needed to be scrubbed out at times, but the narrative was gripping. How can you be simultaneously repulsed and fascinated? Mabanckou somehow achieves that.

August 23, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, is this ever hard to talk about without spoilers. And the author is a man, as far as I know. I've seen pictures of him and read academic biographies. There appears to be no repeat of Yasmina Khadra going on (though it might be interesting to think about why two of the three African authors I've discussed here write in French. Khadra's case, in particular, prompts reflections on colonialism and its strange afterlife. By the way, did you know that "Yasmina" and "Khadra" are two of his wife's names and that he chose, he says, to retain his nom de plume as an homage to her even after he revealed his identity?)

Some of the descriptions of real and imagined sexual violence in African Psycho were chilling in their clinical detail. Wider questions are why Grégoire chooses that particular crime to satisfy his spiritual mentor, and why, given the novel's surprising conclusion, Mabanckou chose that crime.

August 23, 2007  

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