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The Lights of Pointe-Noire by Alain…
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The Lights of Pointe-Noire

by Alain Mabanckou

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I have enjoyed Alain Mabanckou's novels, so I snapped up this memoir as soon as I learned about it. The source of this memoir is his return, 26 years after he left for France, to the town in Congo where he grew up, Pointe-Noire, because he has been invited to talk at what is still called the French Cultural Center.

The first part of the memoir, called First Week (he is there for about two weeks), centers on his memories of his childhood, mediated through encounters with relatives from his extended family. I really liked this section and the way Mabanckou seamlessly switches back and forth between the past and the present. Although he was the only child of his mother (two older sisters had died as infants), his stepfather had been previously married (in fact, he continued to see this woman while he was with Mabanckou's mother, a practice apparently accepted by all), so he had lots of stepsisters and stepbrothers and various cousins. Their families had migrated from villages in the interior to this coastal town.

The second part, called Last Week, is more focused on institutions, people, and neighborhoods and how they changed over the intervening years. For example, the movie theater where he and his friends spent countless hours had become a church, and although the pastor and parishioners wanted to kick him out, the owner was still glad to see him again. Another example is his philosophy teacher who was required, under the communist regime, to teach Marx and Engels, but who gave them short shrift and focused instead on classical and other real philosophers. And another is the library at the French Cultural Center, which surely gave young Alain his love of literature, even though he thought you had to start with the authors whose names began with "A" and work your way through the alphabet.

This memoir is loving, if pointed (everyone he met wanted money from him), insightful and charming. It is enhanced by black and white photographs of the people Mabanckou met in Pointe-Noire. Surely "the lights" of Pointe-Noire are its people.
2 vote rebeccanyc | Sep 1, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alain Mabanckouprimary authorall editionscalculated
Stevenson, HelenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Finalist for the Man Booker International Prize 2015 Alain Mabanckou left Congo in 1989, at the age of twenty-two, not to return until a quarter of a century later. When at last he returns home to Pointe-Noire, a bustling port town on Congo's south-eastern coast, he finds a country that in some ways has changed beyond recognition: the cinema where, as a child, Mabanckou gorged on glamorous American culture has become a Pentecostal temple, and his secondary school has been re-named in honour of a previously despised colonial ruler. But many things remain unchanged, not least the swirling mythology of Congolese culture which still informs everyday life in Pointe-Noire. Mabanckou though, now a decorated French-Congolese writer and esteemed professor at UCLA, finds he can only look on as an outsider at the place where he grew up. As Mabanckou delves into his childhood, into the life of his departed mother and into the strange mix of belonging and absence that informs his return to Congo, he slowly builds a stirring exploration of the way home never leaves us, however long ago we left home.… (more)

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