author bio

imageAlain Mabanckou

Robinette, from Broken Glass


translated by Helen Stevenson



let’s say the boss of the bar Credit Gone West gave me this notebook to fill, he’s convinced that I – Broken Glass – can turn out a book, because one day, for a laugh, I told him about this famous writer who drank like a fish, and had to be picked up off the street when he got drunk, which shows you should never joke with the boss, he takes everything literally, when he gave me this notebook he said from the start it was only for him, no one else would read it, and when I asked why he was so set on this notebook, he said he didn’t want Credit Gone West just to vanish one day, and added that people in this country have no sense of the importance of memory, that the days when grandmothers reminisced from their deathbeds was gone now, this is the age of the written word, that’s all that’s left, the spoken word’s just black smoke, wild cat’s piss, the boss of Credit Gone West doesn’t like ready-made phrases like ‘in Africa, when an old person dies, a library burns’, every time he hears that worn-out cliché he gets mad, he’ll say ‘depends which old person, don’t talk crap, I only trust what’s written down’, so I thought I’d jot a few things down here from time to time, just to make him happy, though I’m not sure what I’m saying, I admit I’ve begun to quite enjoy it, I won’t tell him that, though, he’ll get ideas and start to push me to do more and more, and I want to be free to write what I want, when I can, there’s nothing worse than forced labour, I’m not his ghost, I’m writing this for myself as well, that’s why I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when he reads these pages, I don’t intend to spare him or anyone else, by the time he reads this, though, I’ll no longer be one of his customers, I’ll be dragging my bag of bones about some other place, just slip him the document quietly before I go, saying ‘mission accomplished’


'how about you, Broken Glass, how are things with you these days?' the Stubborn Snail asked me a few days ago, not for the first time, 'oh, not too bad' I replied, and he said, seriously, Broken Glass, I think what you need is a bit of affection, you should find yourself a nice girlfriend, get laid once in a while, it would really do you good', 'I don't see the point at my age', I replied, 'I tell you, you need to start over, age is nothing to do with it', 'no, who'd take on a wreck like me, you'd better be kidding, Stubborn Snail', 'I'm not, I'm quite serious, what would you say to Robinette, then, she's a juicy mouthful, don't you think?', he went on, 'my God, not Robinette, she's more than a mouthful for me, I'd never manage to swallow her!' I said, and I started laughing, and we both laughed, I'd just remembered Robinette's last appearance at Credit Gone West, the boss was trying to hitch me up with a real iron lady, I thought he must be joking because Robinette drinks more than I do, she drinks like those barrels of Adelaide wine that the Lebanese sell at the Grand Marche, Robinette drinks and drinks, and never gets drunk, and when she drinks like that she goes to piss behind the bar instead of in the toilets like everyone else, and when she pisses behind the bar she can urinate non-stop for ten minutes, it just flows and flows as though someone had turned on a public fountain, and it's not a trick, it's incredible, but true, men have tried to compete with her at endurance pissing, but have been forced to say farewell to arms, defeated, crushed, wiped out, mocked, rolled in the dust, in cornflour


the last time Robinette dropped by, she came on to a guy we'd never seen before at Credit Gone West, it began with a direct attack from Robinette, the kind of invisible blow dealt by Mohammed Ali to Sonny Liston in the sixties, when he was defending his world champion title, 'hey you there, strutting about like a barnyard cock, if you can piss longer than me I'll let you shag me, any time, any place, free of charge, I give you my word' she said, and the guy replied 'show off, you don't know what you're taking on, I accept your challenge, Robinette, but I'm going to give you a proper going over when we're done, I like a fat arse with big tits', and we all laughed, because the guy was truly a first class braggart, he had no idea what he was up against, if he'd known the first thing about her he would have thought twice about what he was saying, there we all were, killing ourselves laughing, imagining the fellow's corpse already, flat out on the ground, and the newcomer's words certainly irritated Robinette, the inconquerable, the piss queen of the town, of the neighbourhood, so she answered 'are you mad, or what, my boy, before you start calling me fat, you win your contest, you're just talking rubbish, no way you're gonna beat me, not the way I see you standing here, Mr All Mouth and No Trousers', 'oh yes I am gonna beat you, my fat lady,' says he, 'oh no you're not you jumped-up midget, you gotta be mad to try and beat me at my game, you ask any of these guys here, they'll tell you who you're up against' answered Robinette, 'I'm no braggart darling, you'll find I always do what I say I'm gonna do', he riposted, 'you boaster, you, you think just because you talk smart like that you can do just anything you say you can do, I say you can't do nothing' said Robinette, and from where I was watching, some way off, I thought it must be a joke, that they knew each other already, and we were being treated to a brief scene from Three Suitors, One Husband, some hilarious farce, at any rate, I thought they really must be thick as any two thieves in this town, weird kind of people, but no, it wasn't a play at all, and the boasting guy was actually putting up a brave show, an unknown on the circuit, unaware of what was waiting round the next river bend, dressed like a man of substance, in his black jacket, white shirt, red tie and polished shoes, what did he take us for, beggars, bumpkins, in short, a band of workers of the world who wouldn't unite, and we couldn't figure how he'd got his hair, which he'd straightened and fastened behind at the neck, to shine so bright in this dry white season, when the August sunshine barely shone through the layer of cloud, but a peacock's a peacock whatever the season, they still strut and preen in the dry white season, the fact was, even at dead of night, this guy's hair would still have shone as bright as it shone that day, he must spend hours in front of the mirror, the straightening iron was his fetish, in a country where frizzy hair is the greatest of curses his own straight hair brought him just that little bit closer to the white man, and he smoked a lot, in an elegant way, and he introduced himself to people, saying 'for those who don't know, my first name is Casimir, I am Casimir, the unstoppable, known far and wide, I live the high life, you know, I've only stopped off here for a quick drink, that's all, I'm not an old soak like the rest of you, it's the high life for me' and I said to myself, 'holy shit, who is this guy, shooting his mouth off, does he understand what kind of Vietnam he's signing himself up for here?' and we all felt pretty antagonistic towards this Casimir, boasting about his high life, and calling us sad old soaks, why didn't he go somewhere else for a drink, then, with all the high lifers, eh, why turn up here to remind us we were nothing but wretched upstarts, Robinette was right to say he was talking rubbish, I reckoned the guy deserved a good lesson, a bit of proper punishment, and I said to myself 'in any case, so be it, the chips are down' else what's he think he's doing here, in his fancy get-up, like a lawyer, or an undertaker, or an opera maestro, opera being the pain-in-the-arse sort of music that people living the high life like Casimir like to listen to and applaud, even though they don't understand a word of it, what kind of music is it that that you can't even be arsed to wiggle your butt to, when you can't even say to the people around you 'watch me dance!' what kind of music is it, if it doesn't make you sweat, and rub at a woman's love mound, to bring her mind round to the fatal act, but when I used to dance, I mean, when I was still a man like other men, I liked to get myself into the kind of state where I felt like I was floating down into paradise, seeing those drunken angels carry me on their wings, I was a good dancer, when I could put my partner in such a spin she'd collapse in my arms and let me decide how the night proceeded, but I'm not ready just yet to talk about myself in case you think I'm some ego-tripper with his nose stuck fast in his naval, so anyway, Robinette and this guy disappear round the back of Credit Gone West to fight out the war of the end of the world, and out the back of Credit Gone West there's a sort of cul-de-sac, the perfect setting for a wide variety of lewd sexual acts, where people come from far and wide to do their dodgy business, and where our two contestants now withdrew to, followed by the rest of us, as eyewitnesses, as voyeurs, really, eager to see Casimir, he of the high life, take his tumble, and learn a little humility at last, and keep his mouth shut in company, we were all on Robinette's side, cheering her on, applauding her efforts, and so, out the back of Credit Gone West, in a grubby corner stinking of cat's piss and mad-cow dung, Casimir, he of the high life, slipped off his old man's jacket and his medal, took off his fluttering tie, carefully folded up his things, put the whole lot down on the ground in a corner, then –ultimate piece of vanity, which really irritated us – checked his face in his polished shoes, who did he think he was then, arsehole, why was peering at himself when his mashed-up fig-face was about to get another pounding when Robinette had finished making a fool of him, but there he was, preening away, running his hand over his hair, which he'd smoothed with a straightening iron, and which shone even in the pale August sunlight, we'd never seen a guy so full of himself, so first of all, Robinette took off her bodice wrap, which was not exactly a sight to rival La Reine Margot unhooking her corset, then she lifted her skirt wrap to just below her waist so we could see her great big behind, like a perissodactyl mammal's, her huge plump thighs like a woman in a naive Haitian painting, her calves like bottles of Primus beer, she wore no pants, naughty girl, perhaps because no pants exist large enough to contain her mountainous cheeks, then, after a long, repellent belch, she raised her voice and said 'God willing, the truth will be revealed at the first light of dawn, to have and have not, that is what we are about to discover, my friends', and then as she parted the twin towers of her buttocks we saw her sex, and all applauded, and curiously, I and all the other witnesses at once got huge erections, I'm being honest here, I'm trying to speak the truth, yeah, I got an erection simply because a woman's backside is a woman's backside, be it small, large, flat or fat, striped like a zebra's, splashed with neuralgia-inducing pigments or palm wine stains, or pox scars, a woman's backside is a woman's backside, first you get a hard-on, then you decide if you're going to go for it or if you're not, so then we all watched Casimir high-life take off his trousers, revealing his little legs, skinny as a wader bird's, and knees like a web of Gordian knots, he was wearing tomato red pants, which he pulled down to his ankles, and there was his sex, his original indivisible element, at which we all burst out laughing, and wondering where his puny piss would come from, but there he stood, calmly displaying this insignificant object, with its hairy appendages hanging down like the fruit of a breadfruit tree at the end of a dry white season, and began to knead his original indivisible element, handling it like a greasy pole, talking to it quietly, like a snake charmer before a crowd of tourists in the marketplace, he settled down to the serious task of getting it into a catholic shape, which was no easy task with all these people looking on in derision, all supporting Robinette, no easy task at all, with them all trying to put him off by whatever means possible, because of his feeble little member, but he concentrated hard, as though we didn't exist, aware that he was on his own here, that the rest of us were all for Robinette, but it didn't shake his confidence, far from it, he had a kind of calm assurance, paid no attention to his opponent, went about his preparations with the serenity of a professional in this kind of contest, and he shook his original indivisible element, and tugged at it and twisted it this way and that, summoning up his urine, and then suddenly off he went, whoosh, we were off, the contest had started, Robinette spread wide her elephantine legs, her entire Nether Regions now smack in our faces, and we certainly saw her sweet little pea begin to swell and suddenly there she was, giving out an animal squeal, like a hyena giving birth, we almost got sprayed with the steaming yellow liquid, spurting like a sachet of water that's suddenly been pricked, we just managed to step back in time, while in the other corner Casimir high-life was liberating the contents of his bladder, but Robinette's stream was heavier, hotter, more majestic, and above all had a longer range, while her cocky opponent's came out in little fits and starts, like a baby kangaroo, a frog hoping to turn into a bull cow, a crow emulating an eagle, it wiggled and staggered and zigzagged about, tracing strange hieroglyphics on the ground, enough to give a headache to that guy they called Champollion, who enjoyed racking his brains over those drawings that look like they've been done by a three-year-old from the time of the pharaohs and other mummies, and this guy's irregular output landed only a few centimetres from his feet, to the amusement of Robinette, who couldn't resist taunting him with 'you're rubbish, go on, piss harder, piss away, you gonna fuck me like that then piss face?' and the two opponents went on pissing, each after his or her own fashion, two whole minutes is a long time to piss, but the two opponents were committed, and although his flow was in no way unorthodox, Casimir high-life held a steady course, if I'd been in his shoes I'd already have finished pissing and have put my original indivisible element back where it belonged, while this guy had been determinedly flying his flag for over five minutes now, had closed his eyes and tilted his head back, like someone happily humming a requiem for a nun, imperturbable, deaf to all intimidation, to Robinette's many and varied provocations, as gradually she began to step up her urinal output, and suddenly flung at him 'come on, crack, you piss-pot, crack, you know you will, you don't even know how to piss, crack now, I got litres left in my reservoir, man, I'm warning you now, you watch out now, you better stop pissing if you don't wanna be humiliated in front of all these people, you better stop now, say thank you and goodbye!' she shouted, and the guy just answered 'shut up and piss, you old fat hen, the true master does not speak, why should I say thank you and goodbye, not me, not never, you're the one who's gonna crack, Robinette, and then I'm the one who's gonna fuck you' and he gave a squeeze of his two hairy balls, and the flow of his urine increased several notches, and we all stretched our eyes and stared, because this braggart was now pissing with much more conviction, and we could see that his original indivisible element was twice, three times its original size, and we rubbed our eyes in disbelief, as his pouches swelled up and hung there now like two old gourds filled to the brim with palm wine, and there was jubilation in his pissing, and as he pissed he whistled a snatch from an anthem sung by the scum of Trois-Cents, and after that a baroque concerto and then a heavy metal Zao number, by which time he had everyone's attention, meanwhile, Robinette was giving it her all, she farted several times, till we had to stick our fingers up our noses and our ears, it smelled so bad, and ripped through the ear like fireworks at the Feast of the Goat, with an odour of contraband Nigerian camphor, sounding at times like a Mardi Gras trumpet in New Orleans and while we were closely focussed on Robinette's elephantine rear quarters, a witness informed us that on the other side, high life had turned a decisive corner, a miracle deserving of papal beatification, and we all dashed over to get a closer look, you should never miss a miracle, even if it doesn't take place at Lourdes, you got to try and witness those moments that people will be talking about centuries from now, better to witness it in person than have some parrot tell you a story of love in the time of cholera, so we all  went hurtling over to Casimir high-life to get a look at his historic miracle, we were all knocked sideways, something unbelievable was happening right before our eyes, you had to be there to believe it, we saw how Casmir high-life had sketched in the dust with his urine a perfect outline of the map of France, his unremarkable output was now falling in the very heart of the city of Paris, 'this is nothing', he said 'I can do China, too, and piss on a given street in the city of Peking' and Robinette, thrown into disarray, turned round and threw us a glance before shouting 'hey come back here, you lot, come back, what you all looking at down there then, you all a bunch of homos, then, or what?' but we were all quite captivated by the mysterious boastful contestant and began to applaud him and call him Casimir the Geographer, and he began to rise to the challenge 'I'm a marathon man, I am, not a sprinter, I'll screw her, I'll wear her out, just you wait and see' he said, and whistled some more of his Trois-Cent riff-raff's anthem, and his baroque concerto and his number by Zao, and we applauded more and more as he added the various regions of France to his map, while alongside his magnificent drawing there was another little drawing, 'hey, what's that thing he's drawn next to the map of France, what's that then?' asked one witness, distracted by Casimir high-life's artistic flair, 'that's Corsica, idiot' the artist replied, without interrupting his flow, and we all gave a round of applause for Corsica, and for some the word Corsica was a new discovery, and people started mumbling, and arguing, till one guy who was seriously confused asked who the president of Corsica was, what kind of state it was, what its capital city was, whether the president was black or white, and we all shouted him down saying 'idiot, imbecile', and by now the two of them had been locked in urinal combat for over ten minutes, and I began to want to have a piss myself, often when one person's pissing it makes you want to do likewise, that's why when you go to hospital the doctor says to leave the tap running to make you want to go, so anyway on they went, but in the meantime, one of the witnesses, who'd been staring at Robinette's butt the whole time, suddenly whipped his thing out of his pants and began to paw at it feverishly, and we heard a great orgasmic bellow, like a decapitated pig at the Feast of the Goat, and the two contestants, still concentrating hard, still focussed intently on their task, went on pissing, 'hang on, if it's going to be like that I'm stopping, I'm stopping right here and now, I can't work in these kinds of conditions, who do you take me for, eh, I'm serious, I'm stopping now, the show's over' and everyone turned round, and there was Robinette, and she had indeed stopped pissing, claiming that we were putting her off by behaving like infant-school kids, but at least she had the grace and sportsmanship to go over to Casimir high-life to finger his thing affectionately and say 'you did well, my boy, you win today, you are a true pisser, now let's see if you can come for as long as you can piss, just tell me where and when and I'm all yours' and we all gave her a clap because it was the first time we'd seen her concede like that and indirectly ask for a ceasefire, so Robinette and Casimir high-life arranged a meeting in a rented room over by the Place des Fetes, in Trois-Cents, we weren't too pleased about the private nature of their rendez-vous, we would have preferred them to do it there and then, in front of us, and we all went back into the bar feeling a bit disappointed, while Robinette and the victorious Casimir high-life dived into a taxi and went off to their rented room, and no one knows what happened between the two of them, Casimir high-life was never seen again, Robinette turns up occasionally, but she won't tell us what happened, my guess is, she probably took a real hammering in bed with Casimir, and wasn't quite up to the mark, otherwise she'd have got us all drunk and given us all the details of her victory over swanky Casimir and his high life
in fact I wouldn't mind screwing Robinette, I haven't had a good screw for a while, beggars can't be choosers, I don't even know if I'd go the whole way with her, women like Robinette must brew up seismic orgasms, you'd have to keep jogging away for hours, whip her up well till she squeals, and one reason I said no to the Stubborn Snail's proposition, much as I'd have liked to take him up on it, was because I didn't want to tread on the Stubborn Snail's toes, it wouldn't have felt right, perched on top of her, imagining the Stubborn Snail himself jigging around on her like an epileptic rabbit, and anyway, what if the boss himself got jealous, and I wouldn't like to mess up my relationship with the Stubborn Snail with that kind of complication, I don't want to fall out with him when he's like a brother to me, and in any case, would Robinette actually let me take a ride on her, a wet dishcloth like me, and there's a big technical problem, I don't think I'm that well endowed, let's be realistic, and considering all the excess baggage she's carrying behind, I'd probably spend the whole day scouring her Nether Regions for her G spot and only ever get as far as her B spot, if that, and still have her spots C, D, E and F to go, so I'd never satisfy her properly, I'd better just forget it, what I really need at this point in the story is a good rest, I don't want to write another word now, not for a while, I just want to drink, do nothing but drink, take huge big gulps of drink, the last I'll ever have, and if my mental arithmetic's up to scratch, I reckon I must have been writing flat out for several weeks now, some people like to make fun of what they call my new occupation, there's even a rumour that I'm working for an exam that'll get me back into teaching, they say that's why I want to stop drinking and stop coming here, but that's nonsense, I'm hardly going to go back into teaching aged sixty-four, am I, in any case, I need a rest, I need to put my pen down, not read back what I've written, and carry on when I'm ready, whenever that may be, but I will carry on, I just don't want to spend all my energy on it, and when I've finished the second half I'll go, go somewhere far, far away, I don't know where, but I'm going, and I don't care what the Stubborn Snail says, I'll be far away by then, far from Credit Gone West

Author Bio

Alain MabanckouAlain Mabanckou was born in 1966 in the Congo.  He currently lives in California, where he teaches French literature at UCLA.  One of Africa’s major writers, he is the author of  six volumes of poetry and six novels.  He received the prestigious Prix Renaudot for Memoirs of a Porcupine.  He was selected by the French journal Lire as one of the fifty writers to watch out for this coming century.  Serpent’s Tail also publishes African Psycho (“Disturbing – and disturbingly funny”  New Yorker)
Author’s website:  (French)
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Photo credit:  Gaillard