The Death of Comrade President

A nation faces political upheaval--and a boy who just wants to find his missing dog must make sense of it all--in Congo-born, Man Booker International Prize finalist Alain Mabanckou's cycle chronicling life in his home country's port city Pointe-Noire. Centered on the 1977 assassination of Marien Ngouabi, the Republic of Congo's Communist leader, The Death of Comrade President finds 13-year-old Michel still caught up with everyday concerns in a time of frightening uncertainty, even as he learns that his family is at risk of government violence.

Michel's breezy stream-of-conscious narration belies the menace around him, and Mabanckou's storytelling thrives in the gulf between the familiar kid troubles that preoccupy the protagonist and the dead-serious political danger. Here's a charming coming-of-age narrative, complete with crushes and innocent secrets kept from parents, artfully corrupted by the Communist propaganda Michel's been fed his whole life. His train of thought often barrels down tracks laid by government indoctrination, as lines he's had to recite in classrooms occur to him as if they were his own ideas. Sometimes, thrillingly, he challenges these thoughts.

The narrative loses momentum during a lengthy rundown of African revolutionary history as reported by Voice of America radio journalists, but that material is thematically rich. Michel must piece together his country's situation from U.S. reports of events that the Congolese media won't dare say, even as those U.S. reporters have their own propagandist agenda and know little of what life's like in Pointe-Noire. Mabanckou (with translator Helen Stevenson) vividly renders that life, that struggle and that split consciousness. --Alan Scherstuhl, freelance writer and editor

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