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Mind Openers: New Novel Debunks Old Myth


By Meg Sullivan

Published Apr 1, 2012 8:00 AM


Image courtesy of: UCLA Media Relations

Growing up in a bustling port city in the former French Congo, UCLA professor of French and Francophone studies Alain Mabanckou loved the way his mother's stories transported him to the small village where she was raised by traditional people with magical beliefs.

But chills ran down his spine when she would describe a teaching that holds that each human being has an animal alter ego or double. "'The day you die, that animal is going to die,'" Mabanckou remembers being admonished. "'If that animal is sick, you're going to be sick.' I was so scared!"

The teaching later inspired Mabanckou's fourth and most decorated novel, Mémoires de Porc-épic (Memoirs of a Porcupine). Shortly after the Congo-Brazzaville native began teaching at UCLA in 2006, the novel won one of France's top literary prizes, the Prix Renaudot.

With an English translation of the novel finally available in the United States, the Hammer Museum is hosting a May 1 book reading for the tall, hip author who has been called "Mabancool" by the French media. Mabanckou was also dubbed "a shining ambassador for the French language" by France's culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, when the government official presented the author and poet with France's highest decoration, the Légion d'Honneur, last spring.

In a wry twist on his mother's story, Memoirs of a Porcupine is written from the perspective of a porcupine double who defies tradition and outlives his master, an evil man who forced the animal to settle all kinds of petty scores for him. Wise-cracking and perceptive, the porcupine uses the memoir as an opportunity to set the record straight and enumerate the many follies of human beings. Along the way, readers are transported to the world of Mabanckou's beloved mother, who died in 1995 and to whose memory he has dedicated his nine novels and six poetry collections and a biographical homage.

"My friends say she's the best known mother in African literature," Mabanckou says.

Alain Mabanckou. Hammer Museum. May 1, 7 p.m. Free. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, call (310) 443-7000 or visit