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Professor Wins Top French Literary Prize with Congolese Fable

Professor Wins Top French Literary Prize with Congolese Fable

Alain Mabanckou, a visiting professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies, won the annual prize for his best-selling novel, "Mémoires de porc-épic" ("Memoirs of a Porcupine").

This year is particularly interesting because three of the top French literary awards went to writers whose first language is not French.


This article was first published in UCLA Today.

By Ajay Singh

Alain Mabanckou, a visiting professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies, has won one of France's top literary prizes, the Prix Renaudot, the French equivalent of the National Book Award.

Mabanckou, who is of Congolese descent, won the annual prize for his best-selling novel, "Mémoires de porc-épic" ("Memoirs of a Porcupine"), released in September by Seuil, one of France's three leading publishing houses. The award, announced in Paris on Nov. 6, recognizes the finest original works of fiction in French.

"To win a prize such as this generates great commercial success," said Dominic Thomas, chair of the Department of French and Francophone Studies. "This year is particularly interesting because three of the top French literary awards went to writers whose first language is not French."

This is Mabanckou's sixth novel — a 230-page contemporary fable about the relationship between humans and animals. It is based on a traditional African belief that every human has an animal alter ego — and that their destinies are intertwined.

Mabanckou's childhood was steeped in Africa's rich storytelling traditions. "My mother told me a lot of stories about our roots," he said. "Every time she wanted me to go to bed, she would say, ‘If you stay awake, you are going to meet the porcupine.' "

The novel, set mainly in the Congo, is Mabanckou's way of paying homage to African tales. The story is told in the form of a monologue by a porcupine who is the alter ego of a village artisan. Forced to indulge in horrible crimes by the villager, the porcupine rebels against him by telling the entire village about their nefarious activities.

"It is a fable about the fact that man and animal are sometimes in association to do bad things — but this is a relationship in which the human is judged by an animal," explained Mabanckou. "He says, ‘Forgive me, it is not my fault — I am just a porcupine.' "

Mabanckou was nominated for the Prix Renaudot last year for his 2005 novel, "Verre Cassé" (Broken Glass), among three of his works to be translated into English over the first quarter of 2007. The nomination made him such a celebrity in France that a French television crew accompanied him on his first day of class last month on campus.

Mabanckou, who previously taught at the University of Michigan, is teaching graduate and undergraduate courses on African, African-American and Francophone literature through the 2006-2007 academic year.

"Alain's presence at UCLA is a further indication of the strength of our department, which underscores the global dimension of French studies," said Thomas, adding: "The beauty of having someone like him is that students are taught African literature by one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation."

Mabanckou will read and discuss his novel at the James West Alumni Center’s conference room at 7 p.m. on Dec. 5.