You are here

Black Moses interview

Black Moses interview

Alain Mabanckou describes Black Moses as a novel which looks at Africa through the eyes of the little people and translator Helen Stevenson reveals it has been her favourite of his works to translate.

This is part of our series of Man Booker International Prize 2017 longlist interviews.


Alain Mabanckou, author of Black Moses

What has it been like to be longlisted?  

I am honoured to see how a book written in solitude can find its way onto a prestigious award list. At this stage it is as if the novel is no longer my own, and I feel as if the characters are now the masters of the book's destiny. And I am grateful to them for that.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel Black Moses?

Black Moses is a novel that looks at Africa through the eyes of the little people, through the eyes of people who are not important, but who nevertheless are witnesses to our history. Black Moses is proof of the failure of leaders and politicians, evidence as to how dictatorships relentlessly crush the people. But it is also a novel that sheds light on the courage of women, notably of the prostitutes who have played an extraordinary role in the popular quarters of so many of the continent's big urban centres.

Black Moses has been compared to Hugo, Dickens, and Brian DePalma’s Scarface – were you influenced by those writers?

I am always struck by the comparisons people make. These are certainly authors and filmmakers for whom I have great admiration. Overall though, my books are more inspired by African fables, by slightly ridiculous or crazy tales, and I have also chosen to deal with the problems confronting the Black continent by relying on humour and polite derision.


Helen Stevenson, translator of Black Moses

What has it been like to be longlisted?

The Man Booker International Prize is a translator's dream - but I really feel it's Alain's book, and that if his work finds a wider readership through being on the list it will make my work worthwhile. As ever, I feel poised between hope and experience. It would be nice to go further, but to get this far is already very gratifying.

What did you most like about translating Black Moses?

Of the five of Alain Mabanckou's novels that I have now translated this has been my favourite. The narrative voice, the tragi-comic tone, its mixture of vulgarity and elegance, naivety and erudition, make it really entertaining to work with day after day. As a translator I feel I need to be both rooted and waving my branches in the air, capturing the feel and pulling down the essence of it, all the time. I love the rhythm of his writing, and trying to render his mixture of high French and ribald street talk keeps me constantly on my toes. I was translating Black Moses before and during the US election. The depiction of corruption, vulgarity, nonsense, power, cruelty and ego could have been written with the incoming administration in mind, although it is ostensibly a portrait of a life under the Marxist Leninist government in the People's Republic of Congo (declared in 1969). The parallels are so striking. It's good to feel that what you're working on really has something important to say.

How did you find the experience of translating the comic element of Mabanckou's work?

I've spent time with Alain and his family, and in his presence and in his work I have always been struck by the quality of both his laughter and his sobriety. There are many verbal jokes, puns and ironies which you have to look out for, most of which come straight from the mouths of the characters. It's like Candide, ludicrous, terrible, pathetic, absurd. I just translate what he's put on the page, while remembering his laugh, the way it ornaments his sober, almost sombre way of being, the depth of his voice and the stillness of his presence.