I’m a regular at Jip’s, the Afro-Cuban bar near the fountain at Les Halles in the first arrondissement, and these days you could say I’m even more of a regular than usual. Sometimes I doze off until I get woken by the clatter of chairs being stacked by Lazio the security guard who’s cursing under his breath because someone did a runner and he’s the one who takes the rap when it’s his job to sort out the riff-raff from the banlieues and not to worry about who has or hasn’t settled their bill. Willy the barman tells him there’s no difference between riff-raff smashing the place and a customer who hasn’t paid their bill. They’ve both got it coming, even if you pull your punches with the non-payer. . .
Lately, when I show up at Jip’s, Roger The French-Ivorian pounces on me. He’s heard it from Paul From The Big Congo that, in order to drown my sorrows after my ex left me and to control my anger against The Hybrid, I’m writing a journal at home with a typewriter I bought from a second-hand shop in Porte de Vincennes.
Take the day before yesterday, when he saw me coming he didn’t even give me time to reach the spot by the bar where Paul From The Big Congo often stands to get a better view of the girls going by in Rue Saint-Denis.
He said to me: ‘Here you are, Buttologist, just the person I’ve been waiting for! Paul From The Big Congo tells me you’re writing this and that and it is called Black Bazzar! So what’s your little game this time? Why are you writing? I suppose you think anyone can write stories, eh? Is this some rip-off for you to claim that you are unemployed, to squeeze through the chinks in the system, to steal other people’s benefits, to dig an even deeper hole in the dole and to put the brakes on Gallic social mobility?’
Roger The French-Ivorian understood that I didn’t appreciate his tone of voice and ordered two Pelforts to win me back.
‘Listen, my friend, you must be realistic here! Forget about sitting down and writing every day, there are much smarter people for that, and you can see them on the telly, they know how to talk, and when they talk there is a subject, ‘Forget about sitting down and writing every day, there are much smarter people for that, and you can see them on the telly’there is a verb and there is an object. This is what they were born to do, they were brought up with it, but when it comes to us Negroes, well then writing is not our thing. With us it is the oral traditions of our ancestors, we are tales from the bush and forest, the adventures of Leuk the Hare told to children around a fire crackling to the beat of the tom-tom. Our problem it is that we did not invent the printing press or the biro, we will always sit at the back of the classroom picturing how to write the history of the dark continent with our spears. Do you understand what I am saying? Plus we’ve got a funny accent, you can hear it even when we write, and this people do not like. And another thing, you need real life experience to write. What real life experience have you got, eh? Nothing! Zero! Take me, I would have no end of things to write about because I am mixed-race, I am lighter-skinned than you, and this gives me an important edge. My only reason for not writing a single line until now is lack of time. But I will make up for it when I’m retired with a nice house in the countryside, and the whole world will recognize a masterpiece when they see it!’
He downed his glass of Pelfort in one and then, after a moment’s silence, he asked:
‘Since you say you are a writer, have you at least got a white sheep in these stories of yours?’
This excerpt from Alain Mabanckou’s novel Black Bazaar is a letter from a local haunt where it’s better if you stick to what you know. Black Bazaar is published by Serpents Tail.
Photograph courtesy of masochismtango