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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Broken Glass

Alain Mabanckou

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Broken Glass

Title: Broken Glass
Author: Alain Mabanckou
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 165 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Broken Glass - US
Broken Glass - UK
Broken Glass - Canada
Verre Cassé - Canada
Broken Glass - India
Verre Cassé - France
Verre cassé - Italia
  • French title: Verre Cassé
  • Translated by Helen Stevenson
  • The Soft Skull edition comes with a Foreword by Uzodinma Iweala

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Our Assessment:

B+ : one long, dark, literary-comic roll

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 27/4/2009 Melissa McClements
The Guardian . 21/2/2009 Tibor Fischer
The Independent . 9/4/2009 Peter Carty
The Independent . 23/10/2009 Emma Hagestadt
The National . 6/2/2010 Laila Lalami
The Times . 21/2/2009 Kate Saunders
World Lit. Today . Winter/2019 Daniel Bokemper

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mabanckou, who teaches French literature at the University of California in Los Angeles, packs in an array of literary references. The result is a dizzying combination of erudition, bawdy humour and linguistic effervescence." - Melissa McClements, Financial Times

  • "Whatever else might be in short supply in the Congo depicted by Alain Mabanckou, imagination and wit aren't. (...) Broken Glass is a whistlestop tour of French literature and civilisation, and if you don't know your Marivaux, your Chateaubriand, your ENAs and Weston shoes you'll miss a lot of the gags ("a quarrel of Brest", anyone?) -- but don't worry, there are still plenty left. (...) Although its cultural and intertextual musings could fuel innumerable doctorates, the real meat of Broken Glass is its comic brio, and Mabanckou's jokes work the whole spectrum of humour." - Tibor Fischer, The Guardian

  • "This is a work of rambunctiously feel-bad fiction. Mabanckou's novel African Psycho was limited by its central, perhaps overly derivative, conceit. This one is more diffuse, but both aim their shafts at a parlous society dominated by poverty, corruption and an incorrigible faith in magic." - Peter Carty, The Independent

  • "In a novel of few full-stops, Mabanckou's narrative, translated by Helen Stevenson, gains an uplifting momentum of its own." - Emma Hagestadt, The Independent

  • "In Broken Glass, Mabanckouís concerns appear to be mostly formal. He varies his prose rhythm to match the dramatic tension in the story; he gives his characters animal names or nicknames, in the grand tradition of African fables; he introduces puns and wordplays wherever he can. His voice is original and penetrating, his language irreverent and precise. (...) Unfortunately, there is so much style in this novel that there is little room for substance. Mabanckouís characters often end up with similar backgrounds, similar life experiences and similar quandaries" - Laila Lalami, The National

  • "Mabanckou is one of Africa's liveliest and most original voices, and this novel pulses with energy and invention." - Kate Saunders, The Times

  • "Bizarre, harrowing, and humorous even in its darkest moments, Broken Glass entails many of the stylistic experiments and musings that would eventually position Mabanckou as a master of his craft. (...) The prose itself, like much of Mabanckouís work, opts against the most typical stylistic conventions, and translator Helen Stevenson maintains the writerís portrait of consciousness verbatim." - Daniel Bokemper, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Broken Glass is narrated by the eponymous Broken Glass, a washed-up teacher-turned-barfly who practically lives at the well-known local dive, the Credit Gone West, in central Africa. The boss of the place gave him a notebook and asked him to record the stories of the bar and its patrons for posterity -- since: "this is the age of the written word, that's all that's left, the spoken word's just black smoke, wild cat's piss" --, and the novel consists of his (sometimes reluctant) efforts to accomplish this.
       Broken Glass is divided into two sections, the 'First Part' and the 'Last Part', and while Broken Glass gets right to the story at the start he circles back and in the second part also gives a closer, more personal account of himself and how he came to start writing these stories. There are section-breaks every few pages, and what amount to chapter-breaks as well, but the novel is presented as one long, rambling monologue without a single full stop (period) -- as if Broken Glass can't (or doesn't dare) truly break off once he gets himself going (though in fact he does take breaks, including one of four or five days between the two main parts of the book, as he tries, yet again, to collect himself).
       The patrons of the Credit Gone West are a fairly sorry lot; like Broken Glass himself they all seem to have the faint hope that "perhaps life's waiting for me somewhere", but the best they can do is the Credit Gone West. Broken Glass doesn't judge (too harshly, at least); for the most part he just relates what he's seen and experienced as well as some of the other folks' stories:

all the rest is literature, bad Black-African literature, the kind you find on the banks of the Seine, it's just babble
       But, of course, Broken Glass is presented as babble. More than that: Broken Glass is, in all respects, a literary figure, formed and informed by his reading. Only late in his account does he let on:
I have traveled widely, without ever leaving my native soil, I've traveled, one might say, through literature, each time I've opened a book the pages echoed with a noise like the dip of a paddle in midstream, and throughout my odyssey I never crossed a single border, and so never had to produce a passport, I'd just pick out a destination at random, setting my prejudices firmly to one side, and be welcomed with open arms in places swarming with weird and wonderful characters
       Clearly, in getting him to write, Stubborn Snail, the owner of the Credit Gone West is trying to help Broken Glass find some hold in life; so far, he's made a mess of it. He claims "by rights I should never have been a teacher", and he threw away his career -- but he clearly knew his stuff.
       In fact, the great pleasure of Broken Glass is in how that is revealed -- how the narrative drips with literary allusion and how Broken Glass weaves so much in. Even in translation much of this clever word- and book-play comes across. Some of it is fairly obvious, but even here the sheer breadth of influence impresses, as in:
yeah, I love the taste of a young girl, especially from down there, real belles du seigneur, they are, they know how to handle the Ding-an-sich, they're born with it, you'll never know fear and trembling like that in the marital bed
       Arguably, Mabanckou gets carried away with packing so much into his narrative, overwhelming the actual stories, but with Broken Glass eventually revealing his own failures there is enough arc to the novel as a whole to hold it all together. Yes, the self-obsessed narrator can't fully flesh out those -- and their fates -- he describes, but in its focus on what is ultimately only his self (reluctant though he is to face his own failures) his monologue convinces.
       At one point Broken Glass explains his somewhat unorthodox approach to teaching and learning the French language:
I would tell them that what mattered in the French language was not the rules, but the exception to the rules, I would tell them that if they could understand, and memorize all the exceptions in this language, which was as changeable as the weather, then the rules would automatically become apparent, they would be obvious from first principles, and when they grew up they could forget all about the rules and the sentence structure, because by then they would see that the French language isn't a long, quiet river, but rather a river to be diverted.
       It is this method that Mabanckou applies in his fiction as well, and Broken Glass is particularly successful as such a diversion, Mabanckou playing with the exceptions -- less to language than to narrative itself -- but rooting the novel very, very deeply in the (largely) French literary tradition.
       Mabanckou also balances the ugly hardships described here with a keen sense of humor, as Broken Glass is also a decidedly comic novel (beginning with a longer set piece on an attempt to come up with a catchphrase to compete with "I accuse"). Indeed, Broken Glass is a consistently rollicking read.
       If not entirely successful, Broken Glass is a largely accomplished and often very funny work of fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 May 2010

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Broken Glass: Reviews: Alain Mabanckou: Other books by Alain Mabanckou under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Alain Mabanckou is from Congo-Brazzaville. He was born in 1966 and currently teaches in the US.

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