Book Review: Alain Mabanckou's "Tomorrow I'll Be Twenty" (Translated by Helen Stevenson)

by - 09:36

Last year I dedicated an entire month to reading Alain Mabanckou's  novels that had been translated into English. This introduced me to the writings of an author who, let's be honest, I adore. So when I received a copy of Tomorrow I'll Be Twenty, courtesy of Serpent's Tail, I was so happy. This and Americanah honestly were joint first for books released in 2013 that I had to read. 

Narrated through the voice of ten year old Michel, who lives in Pointe Noire, Congo in the 1970s Tomorrow I'll be Twenty  (or Demain J'Aurais Vingt Ans in its original French) is a fictionalised memoir of Alain Mabanckou's childhood. In a recent interview with Africa Book Club, Alain Mabanckou was asked why it was important to write this story. To which he replied:

"It was very important because I figured out that we had no stories told through the voice of a kid in Congolese literature. In Tomorrow I'll be Twenty, I wanted to explain the way we were living under this Congolese regime called 'Soviet Socialism'. We were a red country! Everything was Marx and Engels, about materialism and the philosophy coming from the USSR".

The last time I read a novel with a child narrator I believe it was Ellen Banda-Aaku's Patchwork, and as much as I loved the book, I really did not like the main character. Michel, on the other hand, I absolutely adored. He was generous, kind-hearted, carefree, and also had a way with words for a ten year old ("I'll keep you in the castles I've got in my heart too, where no one can harm you"). I have to say he was a bit naive, but considering he was ten, I'm happy he was. What I loved about this book was the way it intertwined the global with the local - historical events such as the Cold War, Socialist principles, and the daily lives of a family living in the Congo-Brazzaville in the1970s- and how these were all portrayed through the eyes of a child.

There's Michel’s communist uncle, Rene, who quotes Marx, Engels and Lenin and claims to believe in the tenets of Marxism/Communism, but lives in wealth. A President who is also the Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and President of the Congolese Workers' Party, and immortal leaders with speeches children have to know by heart and recite word for word in class.

Michel and his father, Papa Roger, listen to the Voice of America with the American, Roger Guy Folly, on the radio cassette player his father got as a present from one of the guests at the Victory Palace Hotel where he works. Here he learns about Phnom Penh in Cambodia and the Vietnamese army that took over, the Shah of Iran and Ayatollah Khomeyni, Idi Amin Dada, the President of Uganda, and even Mother Teresa and the Nobel Peace Prize. Michel's also got seven brothers and sisters who he stays with when his mother, who sells peanuts, goes to the bush for business. His best friend is Lounes. They like to watch planes flying overhead and guess which country they will land in. He is also in love with Lounes' sister, Caroline, but she left him for ugly Mabele because he's read books like Marcel Pagnol.

While he struggles to decipher world events and the demands of his girlfriend, there is also a problem on the home-front. His mother is unable to have a second child and a witch doctor convinces Michel’s parents that he has the key (literally) to unlock his mother’s womb.

I can't say how much I enjoyed reading this book, but if you have ever been curious about what was happening, but also what it was like living, in a communist African country during the 1970s, what better way to see it than through the eyes of a loveable boy, like Michel.  Also, who else can get away with saying, "The Shah of Iran's become a kind of vagabond, wandering from country to country, while the Monster, Idi Amin Dada, is fine, no one's after him, he's just chilling out in Saudi Arabia”, other than Alain Mabanckou in the voice of ten-year old Michel. 

All that’s left for me to say, is grab a copy of Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty. And let me know what you think.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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