Don't look for any periods in Memoirs of a Porcupine, Alain Mabanckou's rushing, frothing, darkly comic narrative--there aren't any. It's a one-sentence, madcap plunge into African lore with a porcupine harmful double (like a spirit animal, only more wicked) telling his sad story--the tale of his human counterpart's short, murderous life--to a baobab tree.
Mabanckou drags the reader into an alien, unpredictable world of Congolese lore where palm rats are hostile, squirrels are friendly, and babies come back from the dead, delightfully captured by a sentence that won't end and won't let go. It begins with the porcupine narrator defying the old patriarch of the porcupines, and his brave defection to the village of the child Kibandi. The scenes of Congolese magic are spare, swift and appropriately chilling. Papa Kibandi, the boy's father, drags his 10-year-old son off into the forest and forces him to drink an initiatory potion called mayamvumbi (part palm wine, part swamp mud). His harmful double, the porcupine, stays hidden just outside the village of Séképembé and only goes to him late at night for special missions.
By age 17, Kibandi has become a skinny, intelligent, inquisitive young man who has learned everything there is to know about roofing. Though he sets out to be different from his father, his harmful double soon makes his life just as murderous. Brick makers and palm wine tappers fall from the porcupine's quills, as well as pretty girls who refuse Kibandi's advances, postmen, farmers and tam-tam makers. Even the blind old witch doctor who knows the dark arts can't stand up to him. The bodies pile up--people die for teasing Kibandi for being thin, calling him a sorcerer, opposing him for village council, even for refusing to give him credit on his groceries--and he always gets away with it, thanks to a strategically placed palm nut. Slowly these deaths become more and more disturbing, increasingly less comic, but Kibandi and his harmful double continue to rampage unchecked until he makes one mistake, ignoring a basic prohibition of Congolese magic: never attack twins.
Mabanckou has a grand time telling a story you've never read before, and though it's the chronicle of an unstoppable serial killer, he keeps it light and haunting, a tale to amuse adults and terrify children on long dark jungle nights. --Nick DiMartino
Shelf Talker: A porcupine's life as a harmful double to a Congolese serial killer makes a darkly comic tour de force.