Afterthoughts: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou

In a Nutshell: If one is not too easily offended by explicit material, and one can get past Mabanckou’s rebellious flouting of the rules of proper grammar, then what one can look forward to in Broken Glass, is a novel which offers a quite remarkable and wholly memorable reading experience.

Before I kick off with my afterthoughts on Broken Glass I should explain that I’m going to do something a little different for this one. As I mentioned in my forethoughts, Mabanckou has used a unique grammatical style for this novel, and I thought it would be both fun and practical to scribe my review in a similar way; fun for the obvious reason and practical because it will offer a taste of what the reader can expect when reading this book, allowing him or her to gauge whether or not they are comfortable with Mabanckou’s unorthodox style. So without further ado it’s time for grammar teachers to click away from RobAroundBooks, as I present my afterthoughts on Broken Glass, in ‘Broken Glass’ style (although nowhere near as good as Mabanckou does it of course).

when I first picked up Broken Glass I didn’t quite know what to expect, my interest was certainly piqued, as it always is when I stumble across an unknown writer (to me) such as Alain Mabanckou, and especially one who hails from somewhere as exotic (to me) as the Congo, I was also interested in the basic premise of the novel too – a writer collecting the life stories of a number of patrons at a dilapidated bar – very appealing, and if that wasn’t enough, I’d stated in my forethoughts that I was also intrigued by a novel which declares in its blurb that it’s going to be providing ‘riffs on the literature of Africa and the West’, so I had three good reasons to read Broken Glass (four if you include my declaration of love for its cover), but quite what I thought I’d get from this novel was entirely different to what I actually did get, I guess what I expected was more of a laid-back meander around Congolese culture in a ‘driving around with your aunt on a Sunday afternoon’ kind of way, however what I got was more akin to screaming around a housing estate in a stolen car, with half of the county’s police-force hot on my heels, in other words Broken Glass is rebellious and breakneck, and the whole reading experience left me quite breathless

the hardest thing to get to grips with initially in Broken Glass is that unique style of grammar that Mabanckou uses to tell the story (as you know I’m giving you a taste of that already), a scarcity in the division of paragraphs (a few of them span 7-8 pages or more), and a lack of full-stops and capitalisation make reading tough, but once used to it one is rewarded with a rather extraordinary (in a good way) reading experience, Mabanckou’s decision to play around with the grammar was deliberate, and rather genius if one may add, in a recent interview for the Guardian he declares he wanted to be a rebel, but in reality it’s Mabanckou’s main character who is the rebel, Mabanckou is writing as his main character, as if penned by his main character, and the result is something quite remarkable, to explain, the main premise of Broken Glass, as mentioned before, is that patrons of the Credit Gone West bar relate stories of their life to Broken Glass, who records them in his notebook for prosperity, one would imagine that this relaying of a life story from each patron would be spontaneous, unedited and very much in the form of a loose monologue (especially when the story-teller is somewhat the worse for wear due to alcohol, which is often the case in this novel), and the way in which Mabanckou has presented his ‘rebellious’ grammar makes the story read as though these life stories are being revealed by their owner, directly to the reader there and then, in the form of a drunken ramble, it’s this flouting of the rules of grammar that definitely gives Broken Glass its incredible pace, and it’s this flouting of the rules of grammar which also singles Mabanckou out as being something of an incredibly creative writer

as good as Broken Glass is, I should issue a word of warning that some of the material in this novel is extremely explicit and rather shocking at times, it’s certainly not a novel for those who are easily offended, and definitely not one for the eyes of any junior readers, I stated in my forethoughts for Broken Glass that Mabanckou was something of a shock writer, and reading the novel definitely confirms this, however I don’t feel that Mabanckou is sensationalising for sensation’s sake, rather he’s using shock to further promote the satirical nature of the book, and the outlandish culture on which the book is themed upon

I could dwell on characters but I won’t, I’d rather the reader were introduced to them by Broken Glass himself, I will say that the character of Broken Class is superb, one certainly feels attracted to his rather rebellious nature, while at the same time feeling quite sympathetic of his situation, with the exception of the main characters who relay their life stories, there’s a feeling that the others characters are merely there in a supporting role to Broken Glass, but they are certainly developed well enough to hold interest (especially Mama Mfoa the kebab seller, I love her!)

as I said at the start the cover blurb promises the reader ‘riffs on the literature of Africa and the West’, and Mabanckou doesn’t disappoint, I’m sure the more widely-read reader would be more akin to spotting the more subtle literary references than I was, but even so I found enough ‘riffs’ and satirical pokes of a number of well-known works to keep me happy, including what was for me the real highlight in this respect – the appearance of a grown-up Holden Caulfield (of Catcher in the Rye fame) in the Credit Gone West, who even in adulthood still harbours a preoccupation for the welfare of ducks in winter – funny stuff!

I think then that I’ve said all I need to about Broken Glass. How did you get on with the rebellious grammar? :o). On the novel’s cover is a review quote from Le Magazine Littéraire which succinctly calls Broken Glass‘mature, shocking, hilarious, innovative’, and now that I’ve read the novel I think I can say that that’s one the most accurate ‘summing ups’ I’ve ever seen. However, to that list I would also have to add ‘unforgettable’ and ‘genius’, words which I think are also needed to describe Broken Glass. Ironically they’re also words which could just as relevantly be used in description of Alain Mabanckou too. On the strength of one book I don’t really want to say it, but I think I’ve found another author who I need to add to my ‘watch list’

Rating: ★★★★☆

Book Details
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Published: February 2009 (UK)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 165 pages
ISBN: 9781852429188

:: What others have said about Broken Glass ::

  • “it makes a pleasant change to encounter a writer who isn’t afraid of a laugh”Tibor Fischer, The Guardian
  • “When the character of Broken Glass gets into his stride, he reveals the brilliant and powerful talent of his master, Mabanckou.” – Sarah O’Meara, Yorkshire Post
  • About Rob

    Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn’t bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).


    1. Ooh I loved the rebellious grammar! I’m really still interested in this book, from the first time you posted about it. I’m reminded about a book I recently read, Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game, which has quite a bit of shocking content as well. I think there are a lot of readers open to this kind of thing now, if the rewards are worth it, although it’s good to forewarn others as there are still many who don’t care for this style.

    2. Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      I guess ‘shock’ sells Claire, which is no bad thing (provided it isn’t our kids who are reading it :D). I had a quick Google of Hage’s book. There’s a lot of talk of ‘dark’, ‘gruesome’ and ‘no-holds barred’. Sound great *grins*.

      Broken Glass is nowhere near the most shocking book I’ve read but it’s certainly mature and, as Tom said in his comments for my forethoughts, it’s ‘saucy’ :o)