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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Negro Grandsons
of Vercingetorix

Alain Mabanckou

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To purchase The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix

Title: The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix
Author: Alain Mabanckou
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 206 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix - US
The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix - UK
The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix - Canada
Les petits-fils nègres de Vercingétorix - Canada
Les petits-fils nègres de Vercingétorix - France
  • French title: Les petits-fils nègres de Vercingétorix
  • Translated by Bill Johnston

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Our Assessment:

B+ : variation on a (too) familiar tale, but well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 9/8/2019 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mabanckou’s novel is less a portrait of war than it is a snapshot of the lives it derails. While often arresting, Mabanckou’s story is limited by this form. Hortense can be a frustrating narrator, passive and unable -- or disinclined -- to act on her own passions." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix is set in the fictional 'Republic of Vietongo' -- cleverly combining and playing off the terms 'Vietcong' and 'Congo'. The Republic of Vietongo is clearly modeled on the author's native Congo-Brazzaville, also known then (and now) as the Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with the so-called Democratic Republic of the Congo, the huge country to the east that was formerly known as Zaïre), and the outlines of the novel mirror events there from the 1990s; as in the Vietnam conflict, there is a north-south divide (mirrored also in the two major cities, as with Vietnam's political capital Hanoi in the north and economic center Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in the south), as well as a guerilla movement similar to the Vietcong.
       Mabanckou only thinly disguises the locale: a (fictional) introductory 'Note from The French Publisher' notes that the narrator: "wished the reader to know something about her country from the beginning, before learning the facts she relates", and that information includes things such as the size of the country (342,000 square kilometeres, the precise size of Congo-Brazzaville) and the fact that the Vietongo capital, Mapapouville "was previously the capital of French Equatorial Africa" (as, in fact, Republic of the Congo capital Brazzaville had been). So, too, Vietongo's financial capital and second city is called Pointe-Rouge -- while Congo-Brazzaville's second city (and the city where Mabanckou grew up) is ... Pointe-Noire.
       There is a strong North-South divide in Congo-Brazzaville, as also in Mabanckou's Vietongo, and it is central to the story and the political conflict in the background. The novel is narrated by Hortense Iloki, presented as a notebook (now published by a French publisher, who received the manuscript from a third party). Hortense is from the North, but she married a southerner, Kimbembé, who had come north to teach in her native Oweto, and whom she had then moved to the southern city of Batalébé with. The story begins with her flight, along with their seventeen-year-old daughter, Maribé, from her husband and Batalébé.
       Their flight is precipitated by the so-called Okonongo Affair, pitting General Edou against President Lebou Kabouya, as: "General Edou became master of Mapapouville and the whole of the North of the country". (This mirrors the actual events of 1997, when former president Sassou Nguesso launched the civil war that led to the overthrow of the first democratically elected president of Congo-Brazzaville, Pascal Lissouba (in office, like Lebou Kabouya, for five years).)
       Though she wants to head back to her home region in the North, the only way to do so is by a roundabout route, and so Hortense flees even farther south -- to: "the emblematic city of the South", Point-Rouge --, the only possibly escape route, as all roads: "leading directly to the North are controlled by the Negro Grandsons" -- the loyalists of the southern cause. They begin by heading for the nearby sleepy town of Louboulou -- "a backwater, the most secluded place in the South" -- where mother and daughter lay low until conditions might allow them to head for Pointe-Rouge. It is here that Hortense writes her notebook, in the house a local woman, Mam'Soko, lets them use.
       Hortense begins her account in Louboulou, but its three main parts mainly look back. The first part, 'Farewell to Christiane', looks at the more immediate past, Hortense writing about her one close friend in Batalébé -- but, for example, taking her time before getting back to how they actually met and became friends. The focus here is, instead, on what has happened to Christiane, and to her husband, Gaston, and on Hortense preparing to flee. Like Hortense's, Christiane and Gaston's is a sort of 'mixed' marriage -- though in their case it is Gaston who is from the North and seen as the outsider in the South. When the conflict broke out, he was vanished, with Christiane left uncertain as to his fate -- though with little doubt that it is awful. Christiane, too, was horribly abused after Gaston was taken away, as punishment for being with a northerner, and she is now an outcast; Hortense still visited her, despite her husband having forbidden it, but she is cautious about not being seen whenever she goes to Christiane's.
       It becomes clear that Hortense's husband had thrown his lot completely in with the militant 'Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix' -- with Vercingetorix a former prime minister who leads the southern cause against the northern usurpers. A teacher, Kimbembé had begun to spend all his time in support of the cause, attending long meetings at the local Palaver House. His closeness to Vercingetorix ensures a measure of safety for Hortense, but she knew it would only be a matter of time before she was in true danger -- and so she fled before things could come to a head.
       The tension of the flight -- the more or less present -- contrasts with the more relaxed looks back on earlier times, a back and forth that does pay off over the long term (i.e. the course of the novel as a whole) but can be somewhat frustrating along the way, as Mabanckou takes his time in filling in background.
       Among the details filled in along the way is that both Kimbembé and Gaston are lovers of (French) literature, and were -- before the political turmoil -- good friends (though they came to know each other through their wives). A love of books and literature is central to the novel, with Kimbembé lugging around a trunk of books he got from his grandfather, among his most valued possessions: when Hortense suggests it's too much to take with them when they move to the South, he says he can't do without it:

I breathe with it, walk with it; I live with Proust, Balzac, Stendhal, Gide, and the others !
       Of course, when he immerses himself in politics, he has no time left to read. (Before then, he and Gaston often discuss literature -- and he lends Gaston his copy of Céline's Journey to the End of the Night; Gaston had never heard of the author -- and has great trouble making any headway with that particular novel.)
       The Vercingetorix of the title -- a former prime minister who takes the Gallic name -- is only a more prominent figure towards the end of the book. As Hortense learns, he only tells his followers half the historic-Vercingetorix-story -- only that one episode, of standing up to Julius Caesar and the Romans, which: "suited his needs"; the rest of the story hardly being one for the narrative he was selling.
       Though it proceeds in a somewhat roundabout way, The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix basically follows the arc of many similar stories of countries divided by ethnic/geogrpahic differences and excessive cruelty against the Other. So also, what happens to Christiane and Gaston, as well as the fate of Hortense (and the change that Kimbembé undergoes, from admirable teacher-intellectual to fighter), are essentially familiar tropes -- far too familiar, by now. That said, much of the telling -- especially of the in-between parts, not so focused on making the points about the absurdity of such internecine conflicts -- is exceptionally good, and even the roundabout way Mabanckou unfolds his tale ultimately works quite well. There is a touch too much obvious construction to the novel -- so also in having a fictional preface from the French publisher, mentioning also how they got the manuscript (which allows Mabanckou to provide a bit of relief and explanation to what is otherwise an open-ended conclusion, as readers come to realize) -- but it does also give the novel a well-rounded feel. (Note also that the novel is dedicated to, among others, the doyen of Congo-Brazzaville authors, Henri Lopes -- who was, in fact, prime minister for several years in the 1960s.)
       In making his story one that so closely reflects a reality -- the Republic of Vietongo is more than just a stand-in for Congo-Brazzaville, and the conflict at the heart of the novel identical in its outlines to what happened in 1997 -- Mabanckou seems to be held back by some reservations about the full potential of fiction. It's a shame, because as he does also show here, in some very fine scenes, he's quite capable of doing anything he wants on the page and he's a very good storyteller.
       The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix is a very good novel, its only major weakness being that so much of it feels like a story that's so often been told before. Yes, arguably it's certainly worth telling again, every variation on this kind of horrors worth revisiting, but Mabanckou's writing practically drips with potential, of more, and one wishes he'd ventured further (even as his familiar-detail variations are so very good).
       Certainly worthwhile -- especially if one hasn't been exposed to much fiction in this vein.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 October 2019

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The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix: 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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