cover image Black Moses

Black Moses

Alain Mabanckou, trans. from the French by Helen Stevenson. New Press (Perseus, dist.), $23.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-62097-293-9

A small book with a big narrative voice, this wacky new novel by Mabanckou follows the existential misfortunes of an orphan whose “kilometrically extended name” means “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.” Things were always bad for Moses at the orphanage in Loango, a place full of corrupt and unscrupulous administrators who treat children “no better than cattle.” But after the orphanage’s director and his cronies, all relatives, change allegiance as the socialist revolution takes over the Congo, Moses decides to escape to the city of Pointe-Noire with the twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala. They agree to let him join them and give him the nickname Little Pepper when he spikes their food with chilis. The sordid streets of the city offer few better opportunities, however, and in colorful, weird prose, Moses recounts his few triumphs and many travails. His fellow escapees form a gang of petty thieves, but at 16, Moses is taken in by a kindly Zairian madam called Maman Fiat 500, who—with her employees, “ten girls, each more beautiful than the last”—provides him with the only family he will ever know. Moses ages quickly, spiraling into madness and forgetting. He wishes to become his own hero, Robin Hood, but he more closely resembles Don Quixote, eventually striking out on a last noble and violent quest worthy of his long name. This mythic, beguiling novel is a journey to discover what is hard-wired in us and what we make up about ourselves. (June)