cover image The Death of Comrade President

The Death of Comrade President

Alain Mabanckou, trans. from the French by Helen Stevenson. New Press, $23.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-62097-606-7

Congo-born French writer Mabanckou’s intimate tale (after Broken Glass) chronicles the days following the assassination of the Republic of Congo’s Communist leader Marien Ngouabi in 1977. The 13-year-old narrator, Michel, is a book-smart kid who ruminates on everything except the present and has a keen if simplistic sense of right and wrong. Michel’s mundane narration belies the gravity of the story’s context, and when he hears of Ngouabi’s killing, his dreamy demeanor is barely punctured by reality (even after learning that his uncle was also killed in the coup) and he becomes a distorted cipher for the conventional wisdom of how best to behave amid the unrest (“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”). While wearing a black mourning band and a shirt with Ngouabi’s face on it, Michel is laughed at by passing soldiers and barely understands why the newly emboldened military would find his outfit funny. 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. (Sept.)