Although its cultural and intertextual musings could fuel innumerable doctorates, the real meat of Broken Glass is its comic brio, and Mabanckou’s jokes work the whole spectrum of humour. Take these lines, which could have come from one of Alan Coren’s 1970s Idi Amin dispatches: “The Prime Minister promised in the next reshuffle the Minister for Agriculture would be given the portfolio for Culture, all you had to do was cross out the first four letters of ‘agriculture’.” There is a pissing-contest that Rabelais would be proud of (and a stream of scatological schtick). There are also a number of characters who criss-cross the frontier between tragedy and comedy: the Printer, for example, who boasts “I did France”, having married a white woman and enjoyed a comfortable managerial position at the printing works that produced Paris-Match. Washed-up and penniless, he now sits in the Credit Gone Away relating to any ear that will listen how his wife had an affair with his son and foisting copies of Paris-Match on his interlocutors as if he were the founding editor and owner.
The themes of self-delusion and self-awareness are central, and Mabanckou invites us to ponder whether the narrator is peddling an alternative history, just as other customers of the bar seem to be. There comes a point when an unreliable narrator is so reliably unreliable that you can question whether he’s really unreliable.
Much of the writing from Africa (or at least most of the stuff we get to see) is of an earnest or grim character, and it makes a pleasant change to encounter a writer who isn’t afraid of a laugh – even if his work is destined for the syllabuses of post-colonial literature courses.