My father was a small man, two heads shorter than my mother. It was almost comic, seeing them walking together, him in front, her behind, or kissing, with him standing up on tiptoe to reach. To me he seemed like a giant, just like the characters I admired in comic strips, and my secret ambition was one day to be as tall as him, convinced that there was no way I could overtake him, since he had reached the upper limit of all possible human growth. I realised he wasn’t very tall only when I reached his height, around the time I started at the Trois Glorieuses secondary school. I could look him straight in the eye now, without raising my head and waiting for him to stoop down towards me. Around this timeI stopped making fun of dwarves and other people afflicted by growth deficiency. Sniggering at them would have meant offending my father. Thanks to Papa Roger’s size I learned to accept that the world was made of all sorts: small people, big people, fat people, thin people.
He was often dressed in a light brown suit, even when it was boiling hot, no doubt because of his position as receptionist at the Victory Palace Hotel, which required him to turn out in his Sunday best. He always carried his briefcase tucked into his armpit, making him look like the ticket collectors on the railways, the ones we dreaded meeting on the way to school when we rode the little ‘workers’ train’, without a ticket. They would slap you a couple of times about the head to teach you a lesson, then throw you off the moving train. The workers’ train was generally reserved for railway employees, or those who worked at the maritime port. But to make it more profitable, the Chemin de fer Congo-Océan (CFCO) had opened it to the public, in particular to the pupils of the Trois Glorieuses and the Karl Marx Lycée, on condition they carried a valid ticket. As a result they became seasoned fare dodgers, riding on the train top, in peril of their lives. It was quite spectacular, like watchingFear in the City at the Cinema Rex, to see an inspector pursuing a pupil between the cars, then across the top of the train…
Papa Roger walked with a lively step, his eyes glued to his watch – which made my mother say he was the most punctual man on earth. With him everything was timed to the exact minute. He left the house at six in the morning, took the bus on the Avenue of Independence, opposite the Photo Studio Vicky, and arrived in the centre of town half an hour later.
At seven o’clock on the dot he was in the reception of the Victory Palace, straight as a rod, greeting the first clients of the day, as they made their way to the restaurant for breakfast. He stood at the desk and scanned from the hotel entrance to the street outside. As soon as he saw a new client getting out of a car, he shook a little bell. Two uniformed employees came running up to the main entrance, grabbed their suitcases and deposited them at reception. They then took them up to the upper floors after my father had filled out the registration forms and assigned them a room. He took a sly pleasure in describing this procedure to us at table in the evening. It was difficult for him to conceal a kind of pride which, in my mother’s eyes, was nothing but bluster. He would stop in the middle of eating and crow:
‘I’m the most important employee at that Victory Palace! It’s me, no one else, who decides what room to put a client in! If they look like a jerk – you get a lot of them with these Europeans on holiday – I don’t offer them the good room with the view of the garden. I keep that for the clients I like, the regulars who come back every year. Sometimes I might give someone a bad room to start off with, if I don’t know them, and then if they’re nice to me during their stay I’ll switch them. They usually remember I’ve done that when they leave, and they’ll give me a big tip!’
He got back from work at five in the evening, bringing a few French magazines, which he read at table after dinner, reacting out loud to what he read:
‘What? Not possible! I don’t believe it! Why on earth did they do that? The French are mad!!’
At the weekend he wore white pyjamas with red stripes, and brown slippers that were too big for his feet. They were a present, he reminded us, from his boss, Mme Ginette.
‘Even if they were too small for me, I’d wear them, a present’s a present! They’re called charentaises, no one else in this town has them! They’re so splendid, I know people who’d wear them to go walking round town in, if they had a pair! But they’re meant for staying at home in, and reading the paper. That’s what they do in Europe!’
He’d sit down on the doorstep in the morning, and continue his perusal of the newspapers that sat in a pile next to him, with a stone on top, to stop them blowing away in the wind. He forgot to drink the coffee my mother set down just next to him, concentrating on turning the pages, turning back to something he’d read a few minutes before and grabbing a red pen to scrawl on it. Then he’d suddenly break off reading, glance over at me, and notice I was sitting there under the mango tree with my jaw dropping in admiration.
‘You want to read with me? Come on, then!’
I’d dash over to him, having waited impatiently for this moment. He read to me what he called the ‘world news’. I quickly learned the more complicated names of foreign countries and their leaders. Europe, America, Asia or Oceania ceased to feel like distant lands. I noticed my father used his red pen to underline the more difficult French words.
‘I’ll check those words on Monday in the dictionary at the Victory Palace… I need to learn them so I can use them at the right moment with the clients.’
Picking out two more, and underlining them irritably, I heard him grumble:
‘I don’t understand why people don’t write simply, why they have to write words no one understands! Antediluvian, for example, or apocryphal, what’s that mean?’
Indignantly, he turned the page. Here was the world news. He looked displeased as he grumbled:
‘For goodness’ sake, the French are crazy! Why don’t they talk about what’s happening in our country? We’ve had a coup d’état here, and there’s not one line about it! President Marien Ngoubai was murdered last week! The French are in league with them, they must be, they can’t possibly not mention it! The French are behind the whole thing!’
Seeing I said nothing, he went on:
‘I’ll tell you something, my boy, now you listen to Roger! They don’t talk about us because our country’s too small! And because it’s too small, people forget about it, and think it’s only other countries that have mosquitoes, and poverty and civil wars. Not true! We’ve got every problem there is here, you only have to look around you! It’s always the same, in the sea people only think about the sharks and the whales, because they make all the noise! No one thinks about the small fry who are just there to get eaten by the big fish!’
My mother became aware of my increasing fascination with Papa Roger and his reading, and began to get a little jealous. As soon as my father was gone she grabbed hold of the newspaper and withdrew to a corner of the yard with her back to a mango tree, saying:
‘Don’t disturb me, I’m reading!’
She looked like Reading Woman by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. How had she managed to hide from me for so long that she knew how to read? She concentrated hard, checking out of the corner of her eye that, like my father, she had my attention.
The next time this happened, I went over to her and realized she was holding the newspaper upside down. I pointed this out to her with a mocking smile. Unruffled by what she perceived to be an insult, she looked me up and down, returned the mocking smile and said:
‘Do you really think that I, Pauline Kengué, daughter of Grégoire Moukila and Henriette N’Soko, am so crazy I’d read a paper upside down? I did it deliberately to see your reaction!
Don’t you go thinking you and your father are the only ones in this house who know how to read and write!’
On the outside, nothing has changed, apart from the air-conditioners fitted above the windows and the satellite dishes on the roof. Built in the late 1940s, in the centre of town, a short distance from the Côte Sauvage and the railway station, the Victory Palace is one of the oldest hotels in Pointe-Noire. In 1965, the first owner, M. Trouillet, handed over the management to Ginette Broichot, and she bought it from him in 1975. Since it was first erected, the building has watched from a distance as new constructions go up around it, and with slight arrogance preserves the typical structure of that time, concrete, with a huge white façade at the corner of Rue Bouvanzi and Avenue Bolobo.
I don’t dare enter the building, as though I fear my father’s ghost might be lurking somewhere, resenting this return to his past, which is also, indirectly, my own. I recall how he used to boast that he was the doyen of this hotel, and the most loyal member of its staff. The proof of this lay in his special treatment by Mme Ginette, who never raised her voice to him, while the rest of the staff lived in fear of the wrath of the French boss. Madame Pauline thought Papa Roger’s monthly salary was twice what it really was, when in fact he was constantly asking for an advance or counting on getting tips from the clients. He had managed to get my maternal uncle, Jean-Pierre Matété, a job as a room boy. In the summer, Marius, one of my ‘half-brothers’, and I worked cleaning rooms and washing dishes. Sometimes, if she went back to France on holiday, Mme Ginette would put him in charge of the hotel. During these periods he stepped into the boss’s shoes and ran the place with an iron fist. If anyone’s uniform wasn’t perfect he would tell them off, and he shouted at the gardener if he was late watering the plants. Papa Roger didn’t mince his words, calling some people ignorant, others bastards, and writing their names down in his notebook so he could report back to Mme Ginette when the time came. The employees secretly longed for the boss to return as soon as possible, since being shouted at by a Negro was worse than being shouted at by a white.
I will never forget the time he fell into a deep gloom, when the stories he brought home from work, and which my mother and I adored, dried up. It turned out Mme Ginette’s father had come over from France, and was staying at the Victory Palace indefinitely. My father was convinced that his boss had finally found a hidden way of imposing a ruthless inspector on the staff, and this he was not prepared to tolerate. An elderly, sharp-eyed man, he sat in the lobby all day long, watching what went on. Papa Roger claimed that his own role had been diminished, that the atmosphere of the hotel was being ruined by what he called ‘the intruder’. Employees mustn’t take anything home, not even an apple. Newspapers, which my father usually slipped into his bag when the whites had finished reading them, had to stay in the hotel, till eventually they were thrown out. The boss’s father would openly stand behind a client so he could hear whether Papa Roger handled the conversation properly.
‘Every day, he’s there, watching us, he tells the patronne everything, and then she comes and ticks us off, like children! Is that the way to do things?’ he’d ask my mother.
She’d stay quiet as a clam, and probably couldn’t see why it bothered my father so much. Then, feeling she ought to say something, she just mumbled:
‘Well, after all, it is his daughter’s hotel… So it’s his hotel too!’
‘Oh right, so what are we, then? Was it him that gave me the job or his daughter? Anyway, it won’t last long, we’re going to sort him out next week…’
The plan, inspired by my father, in collusion with several employees, was carried out on Monday morning, after heated discussion the previous day, during which they had to convince a few cowards who thought if they went this far they might be sacked without pay. But what really mattered to my father was his territory. He would rather be sacked than submit each morning to the watchful eye of the ‘intruder’.
They discreetly brought a plant into the Victory Palace known as ‘kundia’. It had powerful spikes, invisible to the naked eye. Seen through a microscope, they looked like rows of bristling needles, which came away on contact with a foreign body. Farmers used them round the edges of their fields to stop animals or thieves taking the fruit of their crops. If it accidentally brushed your skin, the only thing to do was resist the temptation to scratch for as long as possible, because the more you scratched, the deeper the teeth of the kundia dug into your skin, and the agony could last for an hour or more.
One of my father’s sidekicks put on a pair of gloves and scattered the kundia bristles on the ‘intruder’s’ armchair. Papa Roger’s role, from this point on, was to make sure no one but the intruder sat there.
The old man came down from his room in his bermudas around ten in the morning. First he did his round of the restaurant, examining each table, straightening a chair he judged out of line, or giving orders to the waiters. Only once he had completed his tour, which for him had become a tradition, and for the employees a form of torture, did he finally take his breakfast.
Half an hour later, he sank into his armchair in the lobby, sprawled out with his legs stretched in front of him, his hands resting on his stomach, eyes closed. This relaxed attitude lasted no more than a few seconds.
‘There are red ants in here! Red ants in my chair!’
He scratched desperately at his legs, then at his hands, and his face. He yelled for someone to bring him a drink of water. The staff clustered round him, till Mme Ginette, drawn by the noise, appeared from the stairs, horrified:
‘Quick, get him to hospital! It’s a tropical infection!’
The ambulance siren could be heard already outside and the victim was assisted by three employees, who all, for the first time ever, were wearing gloves.
That was the last time the ‘intruder’ was seen hanging around the lobby. Papa Roger had recovered his territory and at home we could tell, because he started telling stories about the Victory Palace again…
Quickly I walk away from the hotel, because someone’s been watching me from inside for a while now. Perhaps he thinks I’m a potential client trying to choose between his hotel and the competitor, the Atlantic Palace, only two hundred metres away.
Mme Ginette is no longer the owner, she sold the hotel to the Congolese in 1985, and went back to France. She’s in her nineties now. Once I ran into her niece in Montpellier, and we’ve stayed in touch.
Translated from the French by Helen Stevenson
- The Lights of Pointe Noire is out today in the US, published by The New Press. Get a copy at the Guardian Bookshop here for £7.19
- Alain Mabanckou was born in 1966 in Congo. An award-winning novelist, poet, and essayist, Mabanckou currently lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches literature at UCLA. Among his acclaimed novels are African Psycho, Broken Glass, Black Bazaar, and Tomorrow I Will Be Twenty. Mabanckou was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2015 and his memoir, The Lights of Pointe Noire, won the French Voices Grand Prize in 2016.
- Helen Stevenson is the author of three novels and has worked as a translator for Faber & Faber and Serpent’s Tail. She regularly reviews for The Independent and lives in London.
[Source:- Thr Gurdian]