Alain Mabanckou is a well-known Congo-Brazzaville born author of numerous novels as well as collections of poetry and essays that have been translated into 15 languages including English, Hebrew, Korean, Spanish, Polish, and Italian. He is also the recipient of a number of awards including Grand Prix Littéraire d'Afrique Noire and the Prix Renaudot which he won for Memoirs of a Porcupine, newly released in the U.S. by Soft Skull Press.
Like his earlier novel Broken Glass, Memoirs of a Porcupine revives the oral traditions of Africa through the written word of his colonizers. Chinua Achebe does this in Things Fall Apart by having his characters speak in proverbs. Amos Tutuola does this in The Palm Wine Drinkard by putting to text myths that were traditionally passed down orally. Tutuoa says he wrote “to tell of his ancestors” who “lived with immortal creatures of the forest,” the forest that disappeared, the immortal creatures that moved away. In Memoirs of a Porcupine, Mabanckou revives the tradition by bringing the forest back through conversation.
The narrator, an animistic porcupine, orates his life story to an ancestral tree with pauses and breaths between sips of dew. Ultimately, the comedy functions as a cultural critique of mankind, the “first cousins of the monkey,” especially of Western man whose irrational rationalism, leads them to believe only what they see while worshiping a God who cannot be seen, a God “they worship with their eyes shut tight.”
The harmful double of his newly deceased human double, Master Kibandi, the porcupine questions his own existence, for it is expected that the animal double dies when the human dies. To prove or disprove his existence, he first tests the Cartesian principle, I think, therefore I am, but he finds that this principle, which can be said to be one of the foundations of Western philosophy, falls short of proving his existence. After all, ghosts of all sorts navigate the earth by their thinking. They haunt the living, sit at bars, drink palm wine, and settle their debts with contemplation. Yet “as far as the eye is concerned, they don’t exist.” So instead, the porcupine takes a more practicable approach. He tests his ability to cast shadows and to feel physical sensation. But it is his ability to fear death that convinces him that he’s among the living.
The spoken word, he says to the Baobab tree, “delivers us from the fear of death,” unlike writing which is dead, which catalyzes the fear of death, and in which men engage in attempts to immortalize themselves. Speech puts the community back in communication, and by speaking to the ancestral tree, the porcupine is communing with his ancestors, animating them and bringing them to life through story.
The porcupine tells the tree that he wants desperately to live, though death follows him everywhere. Death follows Master Kibandi as well. It follows the Master Kibandi’s other self too, a ghostly version of the Master with no mouth or nose, born from a ritual experience initiated by his father (or perhaps his father’s other self). When Little Kibandi is a boy of ten, Papa Kibandi takes him to the field and digs a hole in the earth “as skillfully as a grave digger.” From the hole, he fishes up a bottle of mayamvumbi, a potion which conjures Master Kibandi’s other self. This other self, then, the ghostly version, is born directly from the grave and accompanies both Little Kibandi and his animal double, the porcupine, throughout life.
Death surrounds Papa Kibandi as well, and in his village, Mossaka, corpses pile up by the dozens. Most of the deceased are in the Papa Kibandi’s milieu, and most of them have broken a traditional tenet or have otherwise wronged him personally. His brother, for example, has modernized his fields by employing an electric saw instead of the traditional axe. His sister has chosen to marry outside her region. The postman has eyes for Mama Kibandi. And another woman boasts her diploma. As the corpses collect, suspicion surrounds Papa Kibandi, and he is accused of eating these people, of causing their death in the parallel world. Eventually, some villagers take him to a witch doctor, a master of the dark arts, an wizened man with spindly legs and a long beard who was apparently born blind and yet who can see the truth. In the line up, however, Papa Kibandi fools the witch doctor by having inserting a palm nut into his rectum.
When the same witch doctor turns up later in Mossaka, he rights his wrong and identifies Papa Kibandi as the real killer. Papa Kibandi dies by the hands of the villagers who dig up every rodent rat in town and kill it, for the rat is Papa Kibandi’s animal double. Here, the laws of nature are abided. Man and his animal double die together.
Death continues to plague Little Kibandi and his double porcupine, and in their next transition, Little Kibandi becomes apprentice to a carpenter who dies suddenly and quickly. He loses his virginity to a “most curvaceous widow” with an appetite for young boys. (With such an appetite, it’s a wonder she doesn’t eat Little Kibandi!) It’s not until Little Kibandi discovers the Bible that he experiences living. “…each phrase began to move, flowing like a river, the words were suddenly alive, representing reality.” Amazed by textual writing, words that float like “silver-winged dragonflies,” the porcupine reaches the conclusion that mankind is superior to the animal kingdom “because they could set down their thoughts, their imaginings on paper.”
At the discovery of the Bible, Little Kibandi takes to literature and becomes, in a way, a man of letters. Mama Kibandi is disgraced by his engagement to text and warns Little Kibandi that he must not go down the same murderous path of Papa Kibandi. The link between reading and murderousness is catalyzed by Little Kibandi’s dishonest promise that he would obey his mother and leave the books behind. He swears untruthfully on the blood of his ancestors. As a result, Mama Kibandi’s heart fails, and she joins Papa Kibandi in the other world.
At his mother’s death, and Little Kibandi takes to lying on the last mat she wove before she died. It is only half-finished. The other half has been eaten by death. Grieving, he then takes to walking around “with his eyes half closed, like a blind man,” muttering and pointing and entreating his harmful double, the porcupine, to do his bidding, to eat people who have wronged him, to kill them with two punctures of his quill, starting with his beloved whose father has insulted him.
When a group of “White ethnologists” come to town to write about the rituals of burial, and find another villager is eaten, they cheer, “fantastic, we’ve got our stiff, at last we’ll be able to finish that darned book.” Amédée, one of the village’s European-educated elite, reads the 900 page document, the results of the White ethnologist’s observations, and calls it “a disgraceful book, a tissue of lies by a group of Europeans in search of exoticism.”
Amédée is also in the habit of reading World Literature, mostly novels invented by humans who “find life is so boring, they need novels so they can invent other lives for themselves.” It seems he’s read Moby Dick, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Don Quixote, and other novels in which fantasy and reality coexist. He relays these stories orally to the village girls. But it’s a short story by the Uruguaian writer Horacio Quiroga published in 1907 that brings Amédée to Master Kibandi.
Quiroga’s “The Feather Pillow” from Stories of Love, Madness, and Death is a story about a new bride named Alicia who suffers from hallucinatory delusions that a horrible anthropoid that is watching her. Her husband, Jordan, finds doctors who tend to her and prescribe confinement and bed rest. Her condition deteriorates until she dies, and when she dies, the doctors find her feather pillow is stained with blood. Two punctures in her temples prove that the anthropoid was no delusion but instead a real-life blood sucking animal.
Confusing fiction with reality and Alicia with Master Kibandi, Amédée suggests that Master Kibandi find a doctor. After all, he’s looking a little gaunt these days. Amédée further suggests that that he burn his pillow to kill the animal that is harming him. This enrages Master Kibandi, eliciting a murderous bloodthirst. He instructs the porcupine to make sure that Amédée has no animal double that might interfere with the plot to kill the man. The porcupine knows, however, that this is a waste of time. To him, European-educated readers, even African European-educated readers, think animal doubles are imaginary characters that only exist in African literature. “…they would rather think rationally, as the white men’s science teaches them, and the rational thoughts they’ve been taught say that every phenomenon has a scientific explanation.” When Amédée dies by the quill of the porcupine, he is buried with his treasure of books, some of which are still wrapped in their wrappings, “with the prices of currency they use in Europe.”
The porcupine continues to unravel the fantastical narrative of Kibandi’s hunger and murder and bloodthirst born from his love of letters to the roots of his ancestral Boabab tree. The conveyance of the porcupine’s story through oral tradition is essential to Mabanckou’s plot. At the beginning and end of the novel, the porcupine is befuddled by the fact that he has survived his master’s death. He puzzles this riddle in his winding soliloquy but ultimately fails to solve it. But perhaps the riddle has a solution. Perhaps the porcupine lives by the vitality of his oral art, by his ability to weave stories that speak to his most ancient roots.