The Death of Comrade President by Alain Mabanckou Translated by Helen Stevenson

1. First lines. Maman Pauline says you should always wear clean clothes when you go out.” 2. Published 2020 by Serpent‘s Tail (First published in French 2018) 3. Congolese soldiers [Public Domain] via Wikimedia 4. Boy carrying sack. [Public Domain] via Pickpic
Plot

Told from the point of view of Michel, a young Congolese boy living in Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo, this story describes his daily life, and the lives of his family and neighbours. However, the March 1977 murder of Comrade President Marien Ngouabi changes their lives, as Michel realises how closely this event affects his family, and they become more and more fearful.

Quotes

“People say that anyone seen crying a lot will be in favor with the Military Committee of the Party, while people who don’t cry at all will have big problems.”

“Maman Pauline’s put an old cloth with holes in on the table; she only does that for really important guests. It’s got old wine stains on it that won’t wash out; even though my mother cleans it with hot water and Monganga soap, which is made in Pointe-Noire and is better than soap from Marseilles, which everyone in this town adores. Monganga soap from Point-Noire is stronger than “savon de mersailles” because as well as washing your plates clean it can also cure mange.”

“Many people, like me, never knew that mayors were elected. In our country it’s the president who chooses the mayors, and he orders people to go out and vote one hundred percent or there’ll be trouble. And if you get all clever and say you don’t want to vote for a mayor who’s been selected by the president, the soldiers who oversee the vote will put you in handcuffs and take you to a cell to be whipped with an AV42 drive chain.”

My opinion

I thought the boy’s point of view was quite well written, especially the way he interacts with family and neighbours, and the insights he gives to the various tribal affiliations among people he knows. Some of the interactions were quite humorous. However, I felt that there was not enough tension in the story, around the terrible event, and how other people reacted.

The opinion if others
  • Financial Times:The Death of Comrade President is a glorious, funny, surreal novel, set in communist Congo-Brazzaville in the 1970s. It is also a profound study of tyranny and individual choice. … Helen Stevenson’s translation is tight and nuanced, capturing the musicality of a masterful novel.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “Despite the sharp sense of irony, Mabanckou’s narrow focus on Michel’s point of view obscures the narrative big picture; to appreciate it, readers will need to come prepared with a grasp on the Congo’s history. In the end, this feels underdeveloped.”
  • Kirkus: “A country’s fraught history comes vividly to life through a child’s eyes.”
Historical background

Marien Ngouabi was Congo’s military president from 1969 to 1977. He changed the country’s name to the People’s Republic of Congo, and founded the Congolese Workers’ Party as the only political party allowed in the country. He was heavily influenced by Marxist-Leninist theories. On March 18 1977 President Ngouabi was assassinated.


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