I decided to pick up African Psycho after reading a great review in The Believer. The title is clearly a riff on American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis (which I read one summer long ago on Miami Beach). And that cover! Is his head spinning around Linda Blair-style? But his face looks so calm… I was hooked. Really, I am an easy mark.
The author, Alain Mabankou, is Congolese and has won several prestigious French awards including the Prix Renaudot. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds impressive. This is Mabankou’s first book to be released in the U.S.
The book begins with this paragraph:
I have decided to kill Germaine on December 29. I have been thinking about this for weeks — whatever one may say about it, killing someone requires both psychological and logistical preparedness. I believe I have now reached the necessary state of mind, even if I have yet to choose the means by which I will do the deed. It is now a question of detail. I’d rather give myself a bit of latitude on this practical point, and in so doing add a measure of improvisation to the project.
The Believer’s review says, “African Psycho presents no gloomy Raskolnikov, nor the fixed sneer of Patrick Bateman, but a haunted burlesque.” Man, am I glad that i just read Crime and Punishment. I totally get that now.
Our narrator, Gregoire, does seem to present himself as a rationale and clear-minded killer, even as he has conversations at the local cemetery with his idol, the great master criminal Angoualima. Who is dead and unimpressed. He also talks matter-of-factly about his bad experiences in foster homes that may have played a role in his current mind set. At an early age he finds himself living among other cast off boys on the fringes of society.
The desire to be famous also plays a role in his determination to lead a notorious life of crime. He fantasizes about becoming a criminal celebrity like Angoualima and is disappointed at the relative lack of media coverage that his petty crimes have thus far received. Even though the novel takes place in an un-named African country, this aspect of the novel is especially resonant for American readers in light of Columbine, Virginia Tech, et al.
Yet the novel is also strangely comic. Our narrator lives is a destitute slum known as He-Who-Drinks-Water is-an-Idiot. The bars in this neighborhood have names like: Drinking Makes You Hard, Take and Drink This is My Blood, You Break Your Glass You Buy It, This Place is Home, Drink and Pay Tomorrow, No Problem We’ll Worry About it Later, and Even The President Drinks. I’m sure these all sound much classier in French. The main street in the red light district in the city was known as At-Least-Six-Hundred-Francs. Now it is called One-Hundred-Francs-Only Street because the whores from “the country over there” have crossed the river to work for less. Someone call Lou Dobbs!
In the end it is Gregoire’s voice that makes African Psycho a wining novel. Gregoire was educated for a time in the city’s best private schools by his foster families. Yet his voice is also “of the street.” Here’s Gregoire ruminating on his method:
Knives? I don’t deny their effectiveness. Back when I was still reading, I saw that several famous authors let their characters use them. I am thinking especially of Camus’s Arab in The Stranger. Okay, that’s another story altogether. It’s true that the Arab indeed pulled out his knife, but did he kill the narrator with it? No, it was the narrator, rather, who used a pistol! Better yet, he fired four times on an already inert body! I also own a chainsaw.
Gregoire’s mind is a disturbing but fascinating place to spend some time. “Will he or won’t he” is the tension that drives the novel.
This is a pretty good read. Interestingly, the book was translated by someone other than Mabankou, although he is currently living in the U.S. and is teaching literature at the University of Michigan. Go figure. If you’ve got an interest in picking this one up, now is a good time to do so. The publisher, Soft Skull, was one of the independent houses screwed over by the bankruptcy of the distributor for all of the independent publishers. The book is priced to move at Soft Skull.