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Tuesday, 14 May 2013 00:00

Tomorrow I'll Be Twenty

Fiction
by Alain Mabanckou (Serpent's Tail, £8.99)
by John Moore

The scene is the Congo of the 1970s, a decade after its liberation from the French in this autobiographical novel.

Marxist post-colonial phrases are on people's lips, alongside the folklore of spirits and magic, and Mabanckou provides a light satire on these and other incongruities, with the spirit of modernity being exemplified by that ultimate status symbol - a radio-cassette player.

The first-person narrator Michel is 12 but yearns to be 20. He listens to the Voice Of America on the radio and is fully sympathetic to the deposed shah of Iran.

He mimics his uncle's catchphrase, "religion is the opium of the people," and at school they are taught that it is up to them to make sure that capitalism doesn't win in the final struggle. "Capitalist" and "local imperialist lackey" are deadly insults.

Michel's adoptive polygamous father spends two nights a week with his first wife, while the boy's mother - his second wife - finds it difficult to conceive.

In a sudden outbreak of parental generosity, Michel is bought his heart's delight - a battery-powered car with remote control.

It seems it's his fault his mother can't have another child and a witch doctor his parents consult tell them the boy is jealous of prospective brothers and sisters and has "closed up" his mother's belly.

The present's an inducement to give up the key to her belly and, after long and fruitless searches through rubbish looking for a proper key, he finds the opener to a sardine tin which his mother accepts eagerly.

Despite such singular episodes, we don't really enter the head of Michel or that of his first love, Caroline.

Childish fantasies, fears and feelings are in short supply and the other characters tend to be types rather than individuals. While this autobiographical sketch of a child's awakening to real life in its many contradictions holds the interest, this is no classic of post-colonial literature.

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