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Authors: Alain Mabanckou

Memoirs of a Porcupine

BOOK: Memoirs of a Porcupine
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Table of Contents
Alain Mabanckou
was born in 1966 in Congo. He currently lives in LA, where he teaches literature at UCLA. He received the Subsaharan African Literature Prize for
, and the Prix Renaudot for
Memoirs of a Porcupine
Praise for
Broken Glass
Broken Glass
is a comic romp that releases Mabanckou's sense of humour… 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' Tibor Fischer,
‘Broken Glass proves to be an obsessive, slyly playful raconteur… the prose runs wild to weave endless sentences, their rhythm and pace attuned to the narrator's rhetorical extravagances… With his sourly comic recollections, Broken Glass makes a fine companion'
‘A dizzying combination of erudition, bawdy humour and linguistic effervescence'
Financial Times
‘An incredibly funny novel, often rueful, on the edge of tragedy and imbued with the spirit of the French classics. There's a tremendous spirit, irreverence and humour in this book' Boyd Tonkin, Chair of the Judges for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2010
This book is dedicated to my friend and protector, the
Stubborn Snail, to the customers of
Credit Gone West
to my mother, Pauline Kengué, who handed down this
story (give or take a few lies)
how disaster brought me to your feet
so I'm just an animal, just a
dumb, wild animal
, men would say, though if you ask me most of them are dumber and wilder than any animal, but to them I'm just a porcupine, and since they only believe in what they can see, they'd see nothing special in me, just one of those mammals with long sharp quills, slower than a hound dog, too lazy to stray from the patch where he feeds
I wouldn't want to be a man, to be honest, they can keep their so-called intelligence, for years I was the
of a man they called Kibandi, who died two days ago, most of the time I stayed hidden just outside the village, and went to him late at night, for specific missions, I know if he'd heard me making this confession while he was alive he'd have punished me severely, free speech, he'd have said, ingratitude more like, he may not have shown it, but all his life he felt I owed him, I was just a lowly bit player, a pawn in his hands, well, I don't want to boast, but I could say the same about him, without me he'd have been a bit of rotten pulp, his life as a man worth less than a few drops of piss, the piss of the aged porcupine who ruled over us back when I still belonged to the animal world
I'm forty-two years old now, I still feel very young, and if Iu was a porcupine like the ones that hang about in the fields near the village I would never have lived this long, because for porcupines round here gestation lasts between ninety-three and ninety-four days, at best we live to twenty-one in captivity, but who'd want to spend their life cooped up like a slave, imagining a life of freedom beyond barbed wire, I'm sure some lazy animals wouldn't mind, and might even grow to forget that the sweetness of honey does not soothe the bee sting, I prefer the ups and downs of life in the bush to those cages where some of my comrades are kept, only to end up one day as meatballs in some human being's pot, it's true I have had the good fortune to beat the survival record for porcupines, to live the same number of years as my master, I won't say it was exactly a sinecure, being his double, it was hard work, it made great demands on my senses, I carried out my orders to the letter, even though towards the end I began to step back a bit, thinking maybe we were digging our own graves, but I had to obey him, I was stuck with my role as a double, as a turtle is stuck with his shell, I was my master's third eye, his third nostril, his third ear, which means that whatever he didn't see, or smell, or hear, I transmitted to him
in dreams, and if ever he didn't reply to my messages, I'd appear before him just as the people of Séképembé were going out into the fields
I wasn't present at Kibandi's birth, not like some doubles, peaceful doubles they're called, who are born the same day as the child, and watch them grow, their masters never see them, they intervene only when necessary, when their initiate falls ill, for example, or has a jinx put on them, it's a dull life, being a peaceful double, in fact I don't know how they stand it, they're soft and slow, the slightest noise sends them running, a foolish way to behave, starting at their own shadow, I've heard it said that most of them are deaf as well as blind, but you can never catch them out, they have a perfect sense of smell, so they protect their human, guide him, follow his every move until his dying day, when they, too, lie down and die, and their power is transmitted by the grandfather at birth, the old man seizes the babe after consulting the progenitors, disappears round the back of the hut with it, talks to it, spits on it, licks, shakes and tickles it, tosses it in the air, catches it again, and while this is happening, the spirit of the peaceful double leaves the body of the old man and enters that of the little creature, the initiate dedicates himself to good works, will be noted for his boundless generosity, will give money to the lame, the blind, the poor, will respect his fellow man, study plants to heal the
sick and be sure to pass on his gifts to the next generation the day his first grey hair appears, it's a very dull life, a monotonous life, you might say, I'd have no tale to tell you if I'd been a peaceful double, with no particular history, nothing out of the ordinary to speak of
no, I'm one of the
harmful doubles
, we're the liveliest, scariest kind of double, the least common, too, the transmission of this kind of double, as you can imagine, is more complicated, more tightly regulated, it occurs in the child's tenth year, he has to be made to take the initiatory drink known as
, an initiate will drink it on a regular basis, to achieve the drunken state in which he produces a body double, his
second self
, a bulimic clone, who, when he's not snoring away in the initiate's hut, spends his whole time running, cavorting, leaping over rivers, burrowing about in leaves, and there I was, caught between the two, though not just as an onlooker, without my intervention my master's other self would have succumbed to the ill effects of his gluttony, because I'll tell you this, the parents of a child who receives a peaceful double will know all about the initiation and encourage it, but the transmission of a harmful double takes place against the child's wishes, without the knowledge of mother, brothers or sisters, the humans of whom we become the animal incarnation will cease to feel emotions like pity, understanding, empathy, remorse, compassion, night will enter their souls, once transmission has occurred, the harmful double must leave the animal world and come to live close to the initiate, performing his assignments without protest, when did you ever hear a harmful double contradict the master
on whom his existence depends, tell me that, never in living memory of the porcupine, that's when, and elephants aren't the only ones with perfect memories, that's just another human prejudice
long before my master started playing with fire, while I was enjoying a few months' pleasant rest, just watching life unfold around me, fresh air in my lungs, a skip in my step, I ran, how I ran, and at the top of a hill I would pause, and look down at the bustling wildlife all around, I liked watching other animals, the rhythm of their daily lives, I was getting back to the bush, at times I just disappeared, with no word to my master, I'd watch the sun go down, and close my eyes and listen to the crickets, and wake next morning to the chirrup of cicadas, and during these periods of inactivity, or respite, I was constantly feeding, the more I ate, the hungrier I got, I can't remember now how many tuber fields I destroyed, bringing great distress to the peasants of Séképembé, who put the blame on a half-man half-animal, with a stomach as deep as the pit of their own ignorance, then at dawn I'd go down to watch the ducks bobbing about on the river, the reflection of their gaudy plumage shimmering on the swell, how funny they looked, gliding not drowning, then one of them one would give the signal for the end of play, or the approach of a hunter, and off they'd fly, up and away, then some time towards noon came the procession of zebras, followed by the female deer, then the wild boar, then the lions, roaming in groups along the river,
the little ones at the front, the old ones roaring at the slightest thing, they never overlapped, they seemed to share out the day between them, and only much later, when the sun was already high in the sky, came the army of monkeys, I'd see the males fighting, usually over a question of precedence, or a female, it was quite amusing really, their gestures reminded me of humans, especially the anthropoids, poking their bogeys, scratching their genitals, then sniffing their fingers and expressing disgust, and I did wonder whether some of them might not be harmful doubles to humans, then I told myself to get a grip, I knew harmful doubles had to stay well away from communal life
yes, I was a happy porcupine back then, I'm putting up my quills as I say this, that's our way of swearing a pledge, another is to raise the front right paw and wave it three times, I know humans swear on the heads of their ancestors, or in the name of the God they've never seen, the one they worship with their eyes tight shut, they spend their whole lives reading His word in a big book which was brought here by white men in the days when the people of this country hid their absurd little organs under leopard skins or banana leaves, unaware that over the horizon there lived other people, not like them, that the world stretched on, far beyond the seas and oceans, that when night fell here, elsewhere the sun still shone, and as it happened, my master, Kibandi, owned this book of God, with all the stories men have forced themselves to believe, on pain of not deserving a place in what they call
, you won't be surprised to hear I had a look at it myself, out of curiosity, since, like my master, I was a good reader, sometimes I would read for him, when he was
tired, I had a good look at the God book, whole pages at a time, some thrilling, some touching, I underlined some passages with my quills, I'd already heard some of the stories with my own little ears, from the lips of some pretty respectable people, with little grey beards, who attended the village church on Sundays, told with such precision, with such great faith, you could only think they must have seen these things with their own eyes, I should add that the bit of the story they tell most often, these bipeds, is the one about this mysterious guy, a kind of wandering charismatic, the son of God, they'll tell you, how he came to be here was all very complicated, there's nothing about how exactly his parents mated, he's the same guy that walked on water, and turned water into wine, and multiplied the loaves to feed the crowd, and gave respect to the prostitutes, when everyone else threw stones, and made the lame to walk, even the hopeless cases, and the blind to see, and he came down to earth to save the whole of humanity, including us animals, because, get this, even back then they wanted to preserve at least one sample of every living species, we didn't get forgotten, they put us all into this cage called
Noah's Ark
, so we'd survive a torrential rainfall, for forty days and forty nights,
the deluge
, it was called, but then many centuries later God's only Son was sent down to earth, men didn't believe him, they persecuted him, the bad people whipped him, crucified him, left him out in the blazing sun, and the day of his trial, at the hands of the very same people who accused him of causing a public nuisance with his spectacular miracles, they had to choose between him and another man, a wretch they called Barabbas who feared neither God nor man, they chose to set the brigand free and kill the other one, the poor son of God, but believe it or not, he came back from the dead,
like someone just waking up after a quick siesta, and the reason I'm going on about this mysterious guy is not to get away from the subject of my confessions, but because I'm quite sure this guy, the son of God, really was something special, an initiate, like my master, but he must have been protected by a peaceful double, he never hurt anyone, it was others went looking for lice in his tonsure, well anyway, Kibandi had stopped reading those stories, and moved on to more esoteric things, probably because he thought the book of God would condemn his beliefs and practices, and seek to divert him from teachings of his ancestors, so my master didn't believe in God at all, particularly since God always put off answering his prayers till tomorrow, when he wanted concrete results today, to hell with the promise of paradise, that's why sometimes he cut short the hard core believers in the village, saying something like ‘if you want to give God a good laugh, just tell him your plans', and it's all very well men swearing on the heads of their dear departed, or by the name of the Almighty, which they've done since the dawn of time, they never keep their word, in the end, because they know very well that a word means nothing, you only have to keep it if you believe
BOOK: Memoirs of a Porcupine
3.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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