By Olatunde Ilerioluwa
A Childhood Tale of a Congolese by Alain Mabanckou
“…No, she asks me to stay with her, she asks me what I’ve been learning at school, what I like doing best, and what I want to do when I’m older, when I’m twenty….When I’m on the road to happiness, then I’ll know I’ve finally grown up, that I’m twenty at last.”
Alain Mabanckou, also called “the African Beckett,” is the author of several prize-winning novels, including Broken Glass, ranked by The Guardian as number 99 in its list of 100 best books of the 21st century. Also considered a literary phenomenon in the Francophone world, he is known for his candour when talking about Africa and his mannerism in depicting the experience of contemporary Africa. A voice of influence in African literature, Alain captures the rhythm of French on the pages of his books, little wonder that he is a professor of French and Francophone studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Born and raised in the Republic of Congo, Alain gives us a view into his childhood through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy in Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty. The ebullient and chucklesome memoir, initially written in French as “Demain j’aurai vingt ans” and translated to English by Helen Stevenson, was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize 2015.
Michel portrayed the author's voice in this memoir about living in Pointe Noire, Congo, in the 1970s. Michel, a 10-year-old boy, lives with his mother, Mama Pauline, and his stepfather, Papa Roger, who works at a hotel. This gives Papa Roger access to books he gathered in preparation for retirement. These books, news on the radio, and experience with people and society became Michel’s source of knowledge.
As a young boy, Michel’s childhood is characterized by events and people that were to shape his growth. There is Uncle Rene, his mother’s elder brother, who claims to believe in the tenets of Marxism and Communism, but Michel kept wondering how it is possible to live in wealth and still claim to be a communist. There is a loss that comes from the sisters he never met because they decided earth wasn’t home for them. There is Lounes, who is older than Michel, but there is a bond of friendship that keeps them guessing the destination country of a plane flying over their heads. There is Caroline, who is Michel’s girlfriend. There is his stepmother, who he prefers to call Maman Martine, and his stepsiblings, but no polygamous family drama. It is said, the walls have ears, but it is difficult to comprehend the feelings of a 10-year-old boy who has ears to listen to words spoken in the bedroom by his parents, but Alain did justice in ensuring you feel every emotion conveyed in this piece of art.
I love how the book incorporates a mixture of historical and political events from a local and global viewpoint, as I had the opportunity to read about events and people I was oblivious to. The book captures war, dictatorship, Marxism, racism, colonialism, state interference, cultural beliefs, and all you need to understand about the ‘70s. There is the Shah of Iran, whom Michel described as a wanderer, then there is Idi Amin Dada, termed a monster but is welcomed like a saint. Therefore, Michel understood unfairness and injustice at a young age.
While Michel struggles to comprehend the events in the world based on what he hears from the radio, decode the words he reads from books on his father’s shelf, and manage the demands of his girlfriend, there is a problem at home. His mother is unable to have a second child, and Michel becomes the culprit when he is accused of hiding the key to his mother’s womb by a witch doctor. This led Michel to a search for the key, as his mother’s fertility depends on finding it.
Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty, with its choice of literary devices, childlike plot, and blend of words, is humorous and bittersweet. One part I found memorable, and I couldn’t help but release my laughter, was when Michel said, “Now I was really confused. The reason I’d hidden the report was because I thought ‘Very assiduous pupil’ meant a pupil who behaves badly, who talks all the time in class and is stupid, like Bouzoba.” The book's pages depict the innocence of a child, both from Michel and Caroline, who can get away with talking about divorce in this manner: “We’re not married anymore, we’re divorced! I’m never having two children, a white dog, and a red five-seater car with you!”
You can’t dive into a child's mind without feeling the wave of emotions. I felt this through the pages of the book, but this scene remains unforgettable:
…I don’t know what to say to comfort her, to stop her crying over Longombé’s corpse because she’s thinking of her own fears… I whisper: ‘Maman, I’ve got something for you…’ I take out the key and show it to her, she takes it quickly and starts crying really loud. When they hear her, the others think she’s still crying about Longombé’s death.
What better way to view historical events, to understand life in a communist African country like Congo than through the eyes of a naïve boy. In Alain Mabanckou's words, “We want to write our Africa and not rewrite it. So, the coming generations have a trace of our topography of the continent,” and truly, he spares no effort to achieve this in Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty.
Although the book left me hanging on a cliff with its abrupt ending, it is a reminder of the innocence of a child we often desire as adults and the adulthood we long for as a child:
“The sweetest thought
In the child’s warm heart:
Soiled sheets and white lilac.”
TCHICAYA U TAM’ SI
Olatunde Ilerioluwa is a creative writer and public speaker interested in fiction, creative nonfiction, and performance poetry. Her love for books has also influenced her book reviewing. She writes to take her readers on a journey of insight, knowledge, and excitement. Her work focuses on book reviews, lifestyle, and the human condition. She draws inspiration from the books she reads, societal issues, personal life, interaction with others, and her relationship with God.
When she is not writing and journaling, she reads, listens to music, has fun in her head, or does research. A Karen Kingsbury book is all she needs after a stressful day.