Translated from French by Helen Stevenson
Alain Mabanckou left Congo in 1989, when he was 22, and didn’t go back for 23 years, not even when his mother died. Refusing to accept her death, he keeps up the myth that she is alive and well. “The truth was I dreaded coming face to face with the body of the woman I had last seen smiling, full of life.” But you can only evade the truth for so long. Returning to his hometown, Pointe-Noire, is a way of accepting her death.
His mother’s presence permeates the book. Pauline Kengué was a strong woman who felt it a dishonour to show her vulnerability to her son. He remembers, “I had to peer down deep into those eyes to catch sight of her worries; she had a way of keeping them from me, through a sudden contraction of her pupils.” Abandoned by Mabanckou’s father a few months before his birth, she left her village and moved to the town, determined to raise her child and “scale the endless steps that rose before her”. When Mabanckou was leaving for Paris, Mama Pauline travelled over 500 kilometres to Brazzaville to see him off. They spent a few hours in the café together. As she got up to go, she said to him, “Just don’t disappoint me”. He never saw her again.
A refusal to accept the death of loved ones runs through the book. Mabanckou brings his two dead older sisters “back to life” when he was in primary school to stop his classmates teasing him for being an only child. He says that they are tall, beautiful, speak almost all the known languages and drive in a red Citroën DS. The myth becomes so real that he hears his sisters come into the kitchen at night, looking for food. But he needn’t have worried. Every night, Mama Pauline has been leaving two plates of food for them outside the kitchen door.
The book is full of vivid memories of the people and the places that were part of Mabanckou’s life. The man Mabanckou calls his father is Papa Roger, Mama Pauline’s husband. He writes of him with affection: Papa Roger was responsible for getting Mabanckou interested in reading and probably laid the foundations for his career as a writer.
Then there was Grandma Hélène who took care of people, mostly by feeding them vast quantities of food. All they had to do was drift past her house at mealtimes. Mabanckou and his friend would see adults emerging from her house “fit to burst, like boa constrictors who’ve swallowed an antelope”. She cooked for an army and would remember everyone who hadn’t come to eat her food.
Twenty-three years is a long time, and the town has changed. The Victory Hotel where Papa Roger worked is still standing but the Cinema Rex, where Mabanckou used to watch Bruce Lee films, has become a Pentecostal church. The magic of the movies has been replaced by pastors threatening wrongdoers with hellfire. His old school has been renamed Lycée Victor-Augagneur, after a French colonialist, a man who was probably unknown in his own country.
Coming home is never easy when you have been away a long time. You are tugged by the old stories, legends and the things that have shaped you. But you are also a part of something outside your home—the adult who has made his/her place in the world. The Lights of Pointe-Noire reflects this dichotomy as it moves between childhood memories and the present. It is also a book of memories, grief and acceptance.
And Mama Pauline is always at the centre, like the miracle woman who lives in the moon. When the woman scatters shooting stars from her basket, children are born. And when someone dies, she turns off the stars. She was powerful but in no circumstance was she ever to be mentioned. “We kids would point her out just with a tilt of the nose, a lift of the chin, convinced we mustn’t point at her or utter the slightest sound, or we’d wake the next morning and find we’d been struck deaf or blind.” According to legend, she sacrificed herself to take on the sins of the world.
Looking up at the moon after his mother’s death, Mabanckou wonders if the old woman has retired and been replaced by a younger woman, “the woman I know best and who would have accepted the sacrifice too, the woman who brought me into this world”.