cover image The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix

The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix

Alain Mabanckou, trans. from the French by Bill Johnston. Indiana Univ., $20 (160p) ISBN 978-0-253-04388-7

Set in the fictionalized African country of Vietongo, this uneven novel from Mabanckou (Black Moses) follows Hortense Lloki, a young mother from the nation’s north living as an outsider in her husband’s southern homeland. When a southern general stages a coup to oust the sitting northern president, violence erupts throughout the country. Hortense’s husband, Kimbembé, falls in with a southern militia led by “Vercingetorix,” and quickly becomes violent and abusive, prompting her to flee and seek refuge in the port city of Pointe-Rouge. An avid reader, Hortense’s flight prompts her to begin recording her own story, and her colorful, digressive memories provide the bulk of the novel. Chiefly written in the safety of a friendly villager’s home, Hortense recounts her childhood and education in the country’s north; her courtship and eventual marriage to Kimbembé, her middle school teacher; their departure to Vietongo’s south and her life and friendships there. As such, Mabanckou’s novel is less a portrait of war than it is a snapshot of the lives it derails. While often arresting, Mabanckou’s story is limited by this form. Hortense can be a frustrating narrator, passive and unable—or disinclined—to act on her own passions. At under 200 pages, the novel suffers for want of a strong, central voice. [em](Oct.) [/em]