Book Review - Black Bazaar

Buttologist, so named because of his fixation with women's backsides, lives in a tiny studio in Paris. It's not ideal but better than the cramped dormitory he shared with four compatriots when he arrived in France with a fake ID 15 years ago. Originally from Brazzaville Congo, Buttologist now works as a packer for a printing works and hangs out with his friends at Jip's, an Afro-Cuban bar in Les Halles, where he indulges his taste for Pelforth beer and women-watching. He professes to "understand human psychology from the way people shift their rear-ends."

Despite his straitened circumstances, Buttologist prides himself on his sense of style. He's a snappy dresser, favouring crocodile-skin Westons and tailor-made Italian suits. He's also an aspiring writer and buys a second-hand typewriter, "because I wanted to be like a real writer who rips up pages, crosses things out, and has to interrupt his creative flow in order to change the... ribbon."

Buttologist is still mourning the loss of his girlfriend who has returned to Congo Brazzaville with their infant daughter and an African drummer nicknamed the Hybrid because "he looks like a primate who narrowly missed out on evolving into a human." He also has to contend with the racist remarks of his Martiniquais neighbour, Mr Hippocratic, who regularly extols the virtues of colonialism.

On the advice of his Haitian writer friend, Buttologist starts to keep a diary to express and learn from his conflicted feelings. As well as venting his spleen about his girlfriend's betrayal, he records gossip from the bar, debates about whether the Whites were slavers or saviours, his run-ins with his neighbour, encounters with women, memories of his childhood and meditations on corruption in post-colonial Africa.

Black Bazaar is less defined by plot and more about Buttologist's reactions to people, places and events. It features an array of unforgettable characters, from Jip's coarse, sardonic barflies to the sympathetic "Arab on the corner", who likes to begin his conversations by quoting the poet Aimé Césaire: "For too long the West has force-fed us lies and bloated us with pestilence..."

Alain Mabanckou, shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010 for Broken Glass, writes with real joie de vivre and paints a vivid, poignant, portrait of the Black immigrant community in Paris. His characters' linguistic idiosyncrasies are deftly translated by Sarah Ardizzone. Buttologist is an irreverent but loveable rogue whose various adventures in the lesser known quarters of Paris are as illuminating as they are entertaining. Mabanckou's pointed literary and musical allusions and sly digs at Africans' own prejudices add to the rich cultural tapestry.

Originally published in the Independent on 4 August 2012