“Our heroes tend to be orphans,” Zinzi Clemmons writes in her debut novel “What We Lose,” and the more you look the more the literary universe seems all but built by them. They stretch from Beowulf to Batman, from Tom Sawyer to Harry Potter, Pip to Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre to Anne of Green Gables. Writers love imagining literary orphans because they arrive in the story pre-conflicted; they’re carrying something that’s tested their mettle early. But they’re also heroic figures because they’re blank slates. Free of parental baggage, their stories are usually about how they come to acquire identities all their own. They’re one part loss, one part liberation.
The acclaimed and prolific writer Alain Mabanckou, born in the Republic of Congo and now a professor in the French and Francophone Studies department at UCLA, uses biting humor to tweak this formula in his new novel, “Black Moses.” His hero is a 13-year-old living in an orphanage in the province of Loango who is indeed named Moses. More precisely, his full name is “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.” That mouthful was bestowed upon him by a priest who believed that having “the most kilometrically extended name in the entire orphanage” might be a source of inspiration.
No such luck. Mabanckou doesn’t provide exact dates in the story, but the novel clearly follows the Congo’s transition to hard-line Communist leadership in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Out goes the priest and Moses’ childhood innocence; in comes Marxist doctrine and interminable speeches full of drowsy jargon like anticonstitutionally and intergovernmentalisation. Management of the orphanage grows slipshod, and for a time Moses plays the role of the old-fashioned hero in response to the changes, exacting vengeance on bullies, a pair of twins, by dousing their meals in stomach-searing pepper. But this only earns Moses the twins’ approval for his nerve, and when boys led by the twins head for the city to survive as a criminal gang, Moses joins in.
If anybody is getting liberated in the story, Moses won’t be the one parting the seas to do it. Mabanckou instead underscores Moses’ ordinariness, his inability to rise above his station. As one twin puts it to Moses: “If you’re so special, how come no one ever adopted you? And how many children have actually made anything of themselves since you’ve been in here, you tell me that? None, that’s how many. Zero.”
It’s helpful to know that when “Black Moses” was originally published in French in 2015 its title was “Petit Piment” — Little Pepper, the nickname that Moses is given by the gang he runs with. The English title is more eye-catching and allegorically fraught, but the French one better captures the picaresque spirit of the novel, filled as it is with the quirky and problematic characters who cross Moses’ path during his years in the city. Robin the Terrible is a backward Robin Hood who “had never set foot in a forest and took money from rich and poor alike.” A madam named Maman Fiat 500 provides a semblance of a household for a time, but stability in a brothel can’t last when bumbling leaders are prone to purges in the name of morality. Mabanckou directs his broadest, funniest satire toward a president of Zaire impatient with policy talk. “I’m sick of little men,” he cries. “Find me a tall man, preferably without a Political Science degree for God’s sake!” Naturally, a tall and incompetent sycophant is procured in short order.
For all the novel’s humor, though, Moses himself is a cautionary if not tragic figure. The latter sections of “Black Moses” turn on his loss of memory and the inability of either neuropsychologists or folk healers to repair the damage done to him. His amnesia might be real, but it’s also a symbol for his cultural condition — stateless, parentless, tribeless, faithless. Moses wants to be free “from the chains of ill fortune I’d inherited from the father I was never going to meet,” but Mabanckou denies him much in the way of options. “What are you even doing in this town?” one man asks Moses, following up with a dagger of a question: “What are you even for?”
Ultimately, it becomes clear, what he’s for is the story he tells. Because he’s the narrator of the novel, Moses was obviously able to recover his amnesia. But he’s delivering the unfortunate news that sometimes orphaned children don’t get to save the day; sometimes they’re just pawns in a chess game played by corrupt ideologues. Moses’ Boy Who Lived-style heroism is his memory, his capacity to bear witness, not any particular act of derring-do.
Making this point while preserving a sense of humor is a tough trick, and in the early pages Mabanckou (via his translator, Helen Stevenson) doesn’t seem entirely up to the task — the prose is more dryly expository than brightly quixotic. But once Moses’ essential conflicts emerge — church versus state, good versus bad, family versus isolation — the brief novel gains liftoff, as pointed as it is funny. Like every other literary orphan, Moses gets a sense of freedom and a few good times out of his predicament. But his restless wanderings are never a substitute for what he’s lost. All things being equal, Mabanckou argues, orphans are a lot better off with fewer wild adventures and more stable homes.
Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
By Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Helen Stevenson
The New Press: 208 pp., $23.95