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This tale of wild adventure reveals the dashed hopes of Africans living between worlds. When Moki returns to his village from France wearing designer clothes and affecting all the manners of a Frenchman, Massala-Massala, who lives the life of a humble peanut farmer after giving up his studies, begins to dream of following in Moki’s footsteps. Together, the two take wing for Paris, where Massala-Massala finds himself a part of an underworld of out-of-work undocumented immigrants. After a botched attempt to sell metro passes purchased with a stolen checkbook, he winds up in jail and is deported. Blue White Red is a novel of postcolonial Africa where young people born into poverty dream of making it big in the cities of their former colonial masters. Alain Mabanckou's searing commentary on the lives of Africans in France is cut with the parody of African villagers who boast of a son in the country of Digol.
About the Author
Alain Mabanckou is the author of several prize-winning novels, including Mémoires de porc-épic (Memoirs of a Porcupine). Blue White Red is winner of the Grand Prix Littéraire de l'Afrique Noire. He is Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Alison Dundy lives in New York City and works as a librarian, archivist, and translator. She has also translated Sony Labou Tansi's Life and a Half (IUP, 2011).
Read an Excerpt
Blue White Red
By Alain Mabanckou, Alison Dundy
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
In the beginning, there was the name. A humdrum name.
A two-syllable name: Moki ...
At the beginning, there was that name.
Moki is standing in front of me. I see him again. He's talking to me. He is giving me instructions. He tells me to take care of the rest with Préfet. Don't ask him any questions. Just do what he asks me to do. Moki is there, his gaze turned upward toward the sky. He rarely takes a good look at his go-betweens. I listen to him. Continuously. Rapt.
Am I ready?
Have I seen to everything?
He is in a hurry. He doesn't have time. We have to hurry. Don't sleep on your feet, that's his expression. We're supposed to cross paths at noon at the Arc de Triomphe. Don't say a word to anyone. Come alone. Make sure that you're not being followed. Take a different route than the one we usually do. Don't get there too early. Waiting around is a bad sign. You'll end up getting caught that way. Be there on time. Not one minute later. Not one minute earlier. Everything happens so fast. You have to shape up. That's the way it is with Moki ...
Moki is there.
I still don't realize that he's the one who made the arrangements to get me into France. I can't figure out that he's also the one who took me in and put a roof over my head in this country.
I was one of those who thought that France was for the others. France was for those who we used to call the go-getters. It was that faraway country, inaccessible despite its fireworks that shimmered even in the least of my dreams and that left me, when I awoke, with a taste of honey in my mouth. It is true, I had been secretly working in my field of dreams on the wish to cross the Rubicon, to go there someday. It was a common wish; there was nothing special about that wish. You could hear that wish expressed from every mouth. Who of my generation had not visited France by mouth, as we say back home. Just one word, Paris, was enough for us to meet as if by magic spell in front of the Eiffel Tower, at the Arc de Triomphe, and on the Champs Elysées. Boys my age seduced their girls, warming them with the serenade: I'll be going to France soon. I'm going to live in the center of Paris. We were allowed to dream. It didn't cost anything. No exit visa was necessary, no passport, no airline ticket. Think about it. Close your eyes. Sleep. Snore. And there we were, every night ...
Reality caught up with us. The barriers stood insurmountably high. The first obstacle for me was my parents' poverty. We weren't dying of hunger, but a trip to France was nothing but a luxury to them. We could do without it. We could live without having gone there. Moreover, the Earth would continue to rotate. The sun would follow its course and would visit other faraway places; we would cross paths in the same places, in our fields or at the marketplace at slaughter time or when the peanuts were harvested. My parents would ruin themselves for no good reason by contributing to an adventure like that.
I imagined their response: "What the hell will you do in the white man's country? You abandoned your studies a long time ago!"
The other obstacle was my negative opinion of myself. I was hard on myself. I did not accord myself a single positive quality. I saw the dark side of things and imagined only the worst.
Convinced that I was a good-for-nothing, lacking self-motivation, I thought of myself as a sluggish, spineless character, incapable of resisting the vicissitudes of life outside my own country. To travel in search of success required a mind that was always on the lookout. You can't look back once you've stepped into the wrong river. You need to swim with a strong stroke, and then swim some more to reach the shore.
Leaving means, first of all, being able to fly with your own wings. To know how to land on a branch and continue the flight the next day all the way to the new land, the land that pushed the migrant to leave his footprints far behind in order to encounter a different place, an unknown place ...
Could I leave? Fly with my own wings? I wasn't certain. I was used to living with my parents. I could count on a roof over my head there and meals. That's how I could nestle in my laziness all day long without having to answer to anyone.
To my mind, France was not a good refuge for a dormouse or snails. I compared it to a world where the clocks were set ahead and where it was necessary to continually catch up with time, without a break, the only way to live. France needed quick, well-informed, resourceful people like Moki. France needed go-getters. Quick people, ready to bounce back from inextricable situations as swiftly as a pond mosquito.
I didn't fit that profile ...
I will remember.
It's here and now that I have to crack open the shell in an effort to remember. Cast aside the night that blurs my vision. Scrape the dirt, find tracks, dust them off, and set them aside so I can put things back where they belong. It might be too late afterwards ...
In the beginning, there was the name: Moki.
I don't summon the name Préfet, the man that I knew through his go-between, a little later, when I was already on the rue du Moulin-Vert. I won't summon his name. Préfet. I will have time to remember him. He's not getting out of things this way. All I'll need to do is blow on the embers of reminiscence. I will see his face reappear exactly as I saw it that day, in Moki's presence. I will instantly remember that warm handshake, his shifty eyes, and the smell of alcohol ...
For the moment all I see is Moki.
He is the one at the beginning of the whole thing. I'm sure that our lifelines are crossed. That my own personality was blurred and faded to his advantage. That we have the same breath, the same aspirations, the same fate. The same fate? Yes, so how is it that he doesn't find himself in here with me?
And what if I were only his shadow? If I were only his double? I've asked myself that sometimes. We don't look anything like each other. At least not physically. He is taller than me. Older, too. He's a little heavier than me right now. Me, I stayed puny, despite the dishes made with semolina and potato starch that certain compatriots advised me to eat as soon as I arrived in France, in the hope that this skinny body would gain a few kilos and stop tarnishing the image of our country in the eyes of real Parisians: the men with chubby cheeks and white skin, who cut an elegant figure.
No, Moki and I bear no physical resemblance. I lived like his shadow. I was always behind him.
Especially in the days preceding my journey. I was nothing but a shadow. A shadow is nothing by itself. It needs a presence and a virgin surface on which to print its outline. Sometimes a shadow wants to make a big mistake. It wants to take the initiative. I know that. But a shadow molts at its own risk and peril.
I was Moki's shadow.
He was the one who created me. In his own image. His manner of living bankrolled my dreams. A way of living that I will not forget ...
* * *
I remember the many trips he made home while I still hadn't set foot in France. The white man's country had changed his life. Something had shifted; there was an undeniable metamorphosis. He was no longer the frail young man about whom we used to say, if he's as thin as a dry stalk of lantana, it's because he ate standing up and slept on top of an old mat. There was a yawning gap. It wasn't the same Moki. He was robust, radiant, and in full bloom. I could take note of this, with a tinge of bitterness, because his parents' home was next door to our own. This intimacy compelled me to see his comings and goings over the years. I studied his doings and his gestures with a magnifying glass. France had transformed him. It had chiseled his habits and prescribed another way of life for him. We took note of him with envy.
According to Moki, a Parisian should not live in a hovel like his father's any longer—a shack made from mahogany planks topped by a corrugated sheet metal roof. Their hut was at the edge of a gully, just before the main street. Stunned passersby wondered by what miracle this home had survived the storms during the rainy season. It's not as if Moki's father was indifferent to the dilapidated state of his home. On the contrary, many years before, taking courage in his own two hands, the old man began building another house. This one would be solid, like the one he dreamed of having before retirement. He bought sand, gravel, and a few bags of cement. And that's not all. He had to pay the labor costs and provide for the workers' needs. Back home, skilled workers were fed and paid in red wine from France, invited into your home in the evening with their apprentices, for you to serve their every need with your body and soul. It was the owner who had to kowtow, to wait on them hand and foot, and to beg them for months on end. The numbskulls that challenged the way things were done watched their own projects drag on for ages.
Moki's father was one of the latter.
First of all, he could not convince this union of slackers to drastically change their methods of work. The most obvious reason was mainly because of his cash flow. Without financial means, his best intentions were translated into pathetic and laughable creations. He simply piled up rows of bricks and traced the foundation. He quickly ran out of steam. His pockets emptied sooner than expected. He didn't know which moneylender to turn to. They all slammed the door in his face. His hidebound workers would not work for credit. The work came to a halt. The old man threw in the towel. And so he began to experience the nagging headaches of small proprietors who abandon their projects before completion.
Bricks didn't reach their destination. He counted on starting the work again someday, so he outlined his lot by piling one brick on top of another. He filled his Sundays—the day for small projects in the courtyard—by counting his bricks. He gathered and cemented together any bricks that had come loose. He underestimated the gangs that worked at night: some youths and other builders or future owners of solid homes who needed only two or three bricks to finish a facade, a window, a stairway, or water well.
Over time, the old man's enclosure shrank, becoming smaller and more confined. His goods, if they hadn't been stolen from him, were found in the street. Drivers of big trucks with bad brakes used them to brace their vehicles in place. And to top it off, greenish foam coated the bricks during the rainy season.
One day, he finally flew into a rage and went from house to house to complain and utter threats about this behavior, which in his opinion was a deliberate plot to keep him from finishing the construction of the most beautiful villa in the neighborhood ...
We saw that it was Moki, during one of his trips back home, who decided to resume construction. The Parisian surprised his father. He surprised us. None of us had ever seen such an industrious undertaking in the neighborhood before. He hired a dozen masons who were enticed to work by getting paid in advance and in amounts that made our mouths water. They worked under their own boss from morning until very late at night by the light of lanterns held by apprentices who swayed with sleepiness. Moki closely supervised the work. He gave in to the workers' whims. We thought he even spoiled them. He picked them up at their homes by car in the morning and drove each of them right to the front of their own homes at night. He tipped them every day. At the worksite he congratulated them over a small brick set just so, or even for pushing a wheelbarrow of sand from a little further away. He established a father and son relationship with the oldest, the lead worker. This one called him "my son" and Moki responded "my father." He knew how to find that man's soft spot and stroke his ego.
"My throat is dry, my son...."
"My father, I'll bring you some red wine from France."
It didn't take long to see the results.
After two and a half months, we woke up in front of an immense white villa. The doors and shutters were painted green. We were all bedazzled. We had no idea that those facades, those columns, the beams and paving stones, would fit together and turn into something so stunning. The whole thing developed the way a puzzle is pieced together. Bricks were lifted and broken in two or three pieces for the foundation; the apprentices rolled barrels of water from the river to the site; bags of cement were torn open with pointed shovels; fine-grained sand and small stones were brought every other day by a dump truck belonging to the Pointe-Noire township; a hammer blow here; the strike of a pick there; the planing of a wood plank; a pinch of pliers on that ironwork; a coat of paint on the doors and windows; sawing rafters from limbs of trees famed for their strength to guarantee a solid roof. These workers were simultaneously carpenters, architects, cabinetmakers, ironworkers, plumbers, and well diggers. They worked on an assembly line.
One thing led to another, and the house was born.
There it was, in front of us. We could study it and get a measure of the toil of those workers who outdid themselves throughout that period of time. An immense villa. There it stood, majestic, on all four sides. Its aluminum tiles glistened in the sun's rays. It stood out from far away and was taller than the nearby shacks that were nothing more than a Capernaum whose disorder was an eyesore, like a favela. There were two worlds. One belonged to the Moki family and the other to the rest of the neighborhood.
This sense of the dichotomy of these two worlds grew sharper when Moki installed electricity and a water pump on their lot. Houses with lighting and access to potable water were rare. Installing this water pump proved useful for the neighborhood. We paid a modest sum of money on days when we filled two or three casks of water. Young people hung out in the evening on the main street in front of the villa to take advantage of the light and talk the night away until Moki's father came out and put an end to that.
* * *
There were more surprises in store for us ...
A year after the villa was built, we saw two Toyotas arrive. Moki had chartered and sent them from France so his family could make a profit off them as taxis. That protected the family from utter destitution.
Moki's father was a humble and energetic man. He was short, and that bothered him. We could tell by the jokes he made about tall people, the butt of his jokes, and by the over-blown pride he showed when he reminded all those tall forgetful people that he, a tiny little man, barely 160 centimeters, had brought a tall son into the world, a very, very tall son, some 170 centimeters, he insisted, according to Moki. We would fire back that it takes two to make a baby, and the obvious explanation was that his wife was taller than he was.
His modest height was, however, largely offset by a head-strong and stubborn personality and a serious, sepulchral voice. This voice made everyone think he was wise, even apart from his gray beard and bald shiny head, the few strands of hair salvaged from baldness could be counted on the fingers of one hand. He usually dressed in traditional multicolored clothes and rode around on a pedal bike. The old man saw his life change in one fell swoop. He was never himself again. It was as if he had followed a calling. His social promotion caught everyone off guard. It was like an unobstructed arrow in flight: he was put on the village council and shortly thereafter unanimously elected its president. His elevation did, of course, cause a bit of grumbling among elders in the neighborhood. But they raised their opposition in the shadows, in the talk shops, not out in the open in the neighborhood where the old man waved his ceremonial cane to demand silence. We didn't dare confront him. He was blatant in his insistence that it wasn't his gray beard or voice of a baritone gospel singer that got him nominated in such haste to the presidency of the village council. Quite a few old-timers had vied ceaselessly for this honorary position, and their beards were as white, if not whiter, than his. Some of them had stopped shaving the moment their first white hair appeared, and they ostentatiously trailed their beards in the public square like prophets that arrived too late in a world where the gods themselves were reduced to going door-to-door, identity card in hand, instead of their disciples and saints doing it for them. Something else was needed to convince the influential people in the neighborhood. Presidential candidacies are serious business in the village. The way candidates settled accounts had left bad memories in people's minds. According to ancestral beliefs, old people frequently appear at night through the medium of dreams. One elder steps into another's dream by breaking and entering. It's a merciless battle in this netherworld where there are no women or children. The loser's sleep could cost him a one-way ticket to the tomb. So when one could find grounds for agreement, one chose the path of conciliation. The most prudent elders preferred not to take the risk and waited until they were chosen for the throne without any competition. Wasn't this the case with Moki's father?
Excerpted from Blue White Red by Alain Mabanckou, Alison Dundy. Copyright © 2013 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
African Migration and African Dandys DOMINIC THOMAS,
Blue White Red,