The Premise: disgraced school teacher, Broken Glass, sits in a bar in the Congo, writing in the notebook given to him by its proprietor. His fellow drinkers take it in turns to tell him their stories of mild embarrassment, humiliation and downright degradation.
Thoughts: I read a small profile of Alain Mabanckou and made it my mission to get hold of his books. I don’t think I’d previously read a novel by a Congolese writer (although I have read some poetry from the Republic of the Congo) so I was intrigued. On opening the book, however, my excitement turned to horror as I realised that there aren’t any full stops, or capital letters (except for names) or paragraphs. I’m an English teacher and grammar pedant; this is pretty hard for me to deal with. I almost returned it to the library unread. Almost.
Luckily, I overcame my phobia of comma splicing and did actually read Broken Glass, and I’m glad that I did because it is riotously entertaining, as well as filled with grotesque pathos. Early on, Broken Glass writes satirically of the President of the country, angry at being upstaged by a minister and his catchphrase, and this is what made me see past the dubious grammar.
Mabanckou’s book is pretty short (165 pages) and divided into two sections; in the first, Broken Glass hides behind the anecdotes of his fellow drinkers, with the reader barely glimpsing the narrator himself until part two, when the reasons for Broken Glass’ unemployment and solitude become evident. Mabanckou effectively balances expressing clearly that Broken Glass, like his drinking buddies, is responsible for his own downfall, with creating genuine pathos for his characters. While some of their antics are raucous and entertaining, there’s tragedy in Broken Glass’ description of the breakdown of his marriage, generating a note of real sadness by the end.
In Conclusion: I recommend this peculiar book; if you can look past the lack of full stops, there’s a rhythm to the writing that actually makes it very easy to read, and the story of Broken Glass and those around him is more than sufficiently entertaining to maintain your interest.