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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Death of Comrade President

Alain Mabanckou

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To purchase The Death of Comrade President

Title: The Death of Comrade President
Author: Alain Mabanckou
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 239 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Death of Comrade President - US
The Death of Comrade President - UK
The Death of Comrade President - Canada
Les cigognes sont immortelles - Canada
Les cigognes sont immortelles - France
Le cicogne sono immortali - Italia
  • French title: Les cigognes sont immortelles
  • Translated by Helen Stevenson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-presented, and impressively evocative of that time and those conditions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A 10/4/2020 Alex Preston
Le Figaro . 11/10/2018 Mohammed Aïssaoui
Le Monde . 22/8/2018 S.Kodjo-Grandvaux
TLS . 19/6/2020 Tadzio Koelb
World Lit. Today . Winter/2021 Daniel Bokemper

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Death of Comrade President is a glorious, funny, surreal novel, set in communist Congo-Brazzaville in the 1970s. It is also a profound study of tyranny and individual choice. (...) The Death of Comrade President is about a strange moment in African history but contains so much that reflects on the present moment, its demagogues and buffoons. Helen Stevenson's translation is tight and nuanced, capturing the musicality of a masterful novel." - Alex Preston, Financial Times

  • "Le récit historique se mue en drame familial où l’amour filial offre à la narration une chaleureuse poésie." - Séverine Kodjo-Grandvaux, Le Monde

  • "At a narrative level, Michel acts primarily as a locum for the reader, listening far more than he acts; even his attempts to stop his mother from committing murder are half-hearted at best. The novel needs his good-natured naivety so others may describe his world to him, past and present: Michel's stepfather and uncles provide pages-long potted histories of colonialism, caricatured accounts of postcolonial government, and long explanations of the coup. (...) (W)hile Michael's story surely signifies a great deal, it can feel like strangely little. It is as if Alain Mabanckou wants to keep all the agony to himself, away from outsiders. The Death of Comrade President lets us look at a great human tragedy, but it won't let us touch." - Tadzio Koelb, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The only minor setback for Comrade President is its brevity. The novel proceeds to a fever pitch, with its falling action feeling like mere seconds. This does little to detract from the power of the novel, but the tension is still mesmerizing, if not tempered by a sense of longing. Mabanckou continues his contributions of necessary African literature with Comrade President. Yet, as exceptional as this outing is, one suspects that the author's best work may be yet to come." - Daniel Bokemper, World Literature Today

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 Death of Comrade President is set over three days, 19 to 21 March 1977; students of modern African history likely don't need more to go on to guess what the focal event in this novel by Republic of Congo-born author Mabanckou is, but the (English) title spells it out even more clearly, as: "on 18 March 1977 at 14:30 hours" the Congolese president, Marien Ngouabi, was killed.
       The Death of Comrade President is narrated by a young boy, Michel. He lives in Pointe-Noire, the coastal commercial capital of the Republic of Congo, some five hundred kilometers from the actual capital, Brazzaville, with his mother, Maman Pauline, and stepfather Papa Roger; he never knew his biological father who abandoned the family. Maman Pauline is a successful -- on a small scale -- business woman, supplying local vendors with bananas, while Papa Roger has a good job at a local hotel. Maman Pauline is Papa Roger's second wife, and Papa Roger still spends much of his time with his first wife and the many children he has with her; Michel is treated as a part of that larger family too, though the action of this extended weekend takes place almost entirely around the humble household he shares with Maman Pauline. They have a small plot of land and a reasonably comfortable shack -- but, for example, no electricity.
       Michel is a good student -- eager to do well in school so he can attend the Karl Marx Lycée (a school author Mabanckou actually attended -- as there are strong autobiographical elements to the novel, including that the narrator is the age Mabanckou was at the time) -- but also tends to getting lost in the clouds, his attention and thoughts drifting. Mabanckou uses this very well in his narrative, Michel often trying to focus but his thoughts drifting off elsewhere along the way; still very much a child, he can also not always differentiate between what is truly important and what is incidental -- and so, for example, despite the increasing political tension that quickly sweeps over Pointe-Noire much of his concern is about the pet dog that has run away and which he repeatedly wants to go out (into the less and less safe streets) and look for. He's clearly also been reprimanded by adults about his too-free utterances, and so also tries to curb himself about some of what he relates, repeatedly refraining from going too far with the explicit or rude by noting there are details:

I won't go into here, or they'll go around saying Michel always exaggerates, and sometimes he says rude things without meaning to ...
       The use of a somewhat naïve and unfocussed if observant narrator -- a typical child-narrator -- while serious events unfold around him makes for quite a few traps for the writer, but Mabanckou mostly navigates them well; so also with this refrain, which comes up dangerously often at first, but is then dosed out more carefully, ultimately quite effectively.
       As happened historically -- and as is easily imagined even by those not so familiar with the actual events -- the assassination of Ngouabi led to some turmoil and a harsh political crackdown. Ngouabi himself had come to power after a coup, and under him the nation became the first "people's republic" in Africa -- officially the People's Republic of Congo, as it would remain through 1991. The country was aligned with the Communist-bloc (hence also the Karl Marx Lycée, etc.) -- as it would also continue to be after his death. (Times have sadly only changed slightly, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union: in 1979 Denis Sassou Nguesso assumed power (after deposing interim leader Joachim Yhombi-Opango) and, after losing the first truly democratic election for president in 1992, he returned to power in 1997; unbelievably, he has been president ever since.)
       In describing their life and his mother's work, Michel incidentally gives a good overview of the significance of tribal affiliation -- where you come form, what language you speak (the Republic of Congo, like many African countries, is a Babel-land), and family connections. He's proud of how his mother carries out her work and navigates these complicated waters -- commerce not being very easy in this nation with its limited infrastructure --, offering neat insight into life in Pointe-Noire, and the Republic of Congo generally, in those times.
       In the wake of the killing, Michel's Uncle René, makes an unexpected visit, with two other men (also relatives, it turns out). Uncle René is a member of the Congolese Party of Labour -- wearing the badge that identifies him as such, which helps open doors and makes him a respected and important figure. He comes bearing bad news: Captain Luc Kimbouala-Nkaya, another of Maman Pauline's brothers, was killed by militiamen in the aftermath of the assassination of the president. (There was a real Kimbouala-Nkaya, and he was indeed notoriously killed at that time.) Her other brothers managed to escape from Brazzaville -- and now warn her that she can't go around in mourning, because it would draw attention to her and might expose the family connection to the murdered man, which would have grave consequences. Maman Pauline, however, doesn't want to hide her great hurt -- and wants to attack those responsible; for a while she manages to show some restraint, but by Monday morning she can't hold back any longer -- dragging Michel into the fray as well. In order to help save her, Michel is called upon to sacrifice a part of his innocence and integrity .....
       The original French title of the novel -- Les cigognes sont immortelles -- is a reference to the famous Soviet song about the Second World War, 'Журавли́' ('Cranes'; e.g.), a song Michel knows well, because it's been drilled into him at school. So also at school the students are taught that: "We are the white cranes of the Congolese Socialist Revolution !" Certainly, the strong imagery makes a lasting impression on young Michel; the four-line poem he's written in his very juvenile efforts to impress the classmate he has a crush on, Louise, also allude to white cranes -- and it is to this imagery he can escape when he's forced to make his final sacrifice (of, essentially, his youth and innocence).
       Mabanckou neatly weaves in much of the history and politics of the time -- and where it drones on, Michel tunes out, so also the reader is never too overwhelmed by it. With parts specifically from Michel's perspective -- such as his small part in the school-class welcoming of foreign dignitaries -- it's a fascinating glimpse of a slice of those times. Mid-1970s life in this corner of Africa is very well sketched out -- as are also the conditions, from everyday life and commerce to how news spreads -- with word of the assassination only reaching Pointe-Noire the day after it happened, with the national radio channel only broadcasting music for a day before finally reporting on it, and Papa Roger turning to Voice of America for the serious news (much of which, especially about foreign politics, is not entirely clear to Michel).
       Michel's world remains very much small and focused on the familiar -- looking for his dog, his trips to the store, doing homework with classmates, and interactions with his parents (and overhearing their interactions with each other) --, which Mabanckou weaves very well into the story, with the considerably more ominous backdrop of the events that are overtaking the city and nation. The scenes of actual crackdown are limited, but no less effective for that.
       The significance of events only penetrates so far into the childish mind -- amusingly also leading Michel to wonder about his own reaction, given what he's been taught:
     Even remembering all the citizenship lessons and the names of the presidents all over the world that Comrade President Marien Ngouabi met with, I still somehow can't get as upset as I should.
       His mother, on the other hand, is viscerally shaken -- albeit not by the killing of the president, but the deadly fallout that follows it. She truly lashes out -- endangering herself and her family --, yet another form of action and reaction that Michel can only partially understand.
       It makes for a quite strong story of the place, time, and events -- variations of which are only too common elsewhere as well, as the presentation in the child's perspective makes clear. But it's also the Congo-specific details, from the rivalry with neighboring Zaire (the other Congo), to its place in the Soviet sphere of influence to day to day life in the nation at that time, that are particularly interesting. Mabanckou actually crams quite a bit of history in here as well, but only very occasionally is it too obviously lecturing -- adults explaining things to young Michel -- and it's a welcome perspective on the world of those times, which too often only treats these parts of the world like the Voice of America mention of the assassination, a report which: "was just a flash".
       Nicely and quite cleverly turned, The Death of Comrade President is a fine novel, poignant -- with a very light touch -- but also quite amusing, and vividly evocative.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 August 2020

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The Death of Comrade President: Reviews: Alain Mabanckou: Other books by Alain Mabanckou under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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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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© 2020 the complete review

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