A waggish job seeker once described poetic license at an interview as “a driving license that allows a driver to speed, slow, cut lanes, pick and drop off passengers in the middle of the road, make U-turns in undesignated areas among other ‘undriverly’ stunts but maintain safety on the literary super highway.”
The panel must have thought the analogy wacky, but it was the young man’s audacity with generous invocation of vigorous mimes and dramatic gestures that lit their mean faces and drove them into rocking laughter that chilly morning.
Poetic licence is largely defined as the liberty taken by a writer or artist to deviate from conventional form or fact to achieve an artistic effect. It is also called artistic licence.
The same could be said of Congolese French scholar and writer Alain Mabanckou. His books, Broken Glass and Memoirs of a Porcupine, easily conjure up images of such a daringly adventurous driver cruising at break neck speed and in total disregard of road sings, yet keeping the passengers thrilled in the journey.
The two books stand out for their absence of some punctuation marks like full stops. But the sentences flow seamlessly and breathlessly with refreshing turn of phrase.
The absences of all punctuation marks except commas enables the stories to stream naturally from the narrators’ mind, complete with conversational courtesies like for porcupine’s sake and dear baobab. Reading it is like gliding your car on a road cleared of all bumps, rumbles and potholes.
Memoirs of a Porcupine is the story of a porcupine that shadowed a young man called Kibandi into his occult mission, delving into the ills and wiles of vile human beings.
By the end of it all, he had been witness (and accomplice) to so much foul and folly of human wickedness that the animal rescinded his earlier admiration of man’s abilities: “I wouldn’t want to be a man, to be honest, they can keep their intelligence.”
Animal shadows are a common aspect of black magic practised in some communities in and outside Africa. Memoirs of a Porcupine is set in Congo Brazaville, Central Africa and lays bare the murderous psyche of witches.
Kibandi inherited his mystic powers from his father, Papa Kibandi, just before he died and just as the lad attained the mandatory age of 10. Before his death, Papa Kibandi had “eaten”, nay killed, many people including his sisters and other relatives in mysterious ways.
The old witch administered the initiatory ceremony that involved taking of a potent concoction called “mayamvumbi” to enable the son to carry on the deathly mission.
Taken regularly, the bizarre drink takes the initiate to a drunken state that produces a body double, his second self, a bulimic clone. Porcupine was the chosen double for Kibandi. He was a harmful double who admits to have descended from a vicious line of porcupines destined to serve human beings, “not for better, but for worse, for the very worst.”
And the very worst they did, helping his master to torment his villagers and eat a hundred people. He described this eating of people as a euphemism for “terminating someone’s life by means imperceptible to those who deny the existence of a parallel world.”
Their macabre trade, however, took to a final fatal turn when the evil pair killed baby Youla, over a debt owed to Kibandi by the infant’s father, Youla. Porcupine admits that “eating” the innocent baby “whose eyes were barely yet open” was their most heart-breaking episode that ultimately brought down Kibandi.
Perhaps there is mortal power in a child’s blood that seemingly hit back at those who spill them. For Porcupine’s near depression, self-pity and remorse after killing the innocent infant is reminiscent to that of Okonkwo (Things Fall Apart) after slaying Ikemefuna.
So far, they had eaten, nay killed, 99 human beings and successfully deflected suspicion by some weird stunts. However, their hundredth, baby Youla, finally caught up with them, haunting Kibandi to death and sending Porcupine to confess under a huge baobab.
After killing the innocent baby reluctantly, porcupine felt ashamed of his own reflection in the water and began to fear his own shadow in bright daylight.
He couldn’t figure out why, out of all our victims, the only one that really stopped me from thinking anything else was this baby of Youla’s.
And as soon as Kibandi died, Porcupine retreated to the foot of a baobab tree and fearing for his life because, according to tradition, a harmful double dies on the same day as his master. His death was imminent, if not certain.
And so he opens up to the mighty tree for atonement and refuge: “My dear Baobab, I’ve been sitting here since this morning, talking to you, talking still, even though I’m sure won’t answer, and yet the spoken word, it seems to me, delivers us from the fear of death, and it could also help me stave it off for a little while or escape it, that would make me the happiest porcupine in the world.”
But two days later, porcupine was still alive, quite to his own surprise. “I’m alive, I’m not dead, for porcupine’s sake.”
In sparing the porcupine from the expected fate of a harmful double, Mabanckou demonstrates the viability and significance of ending evil and giving perpetrators a chance to reform in society.