The thirteenth Caine Prize shortlist is here and already the stories are generating some buzz. The blogger Aaron Bady has urged some writers to blog and tweet (#Caineprize) thoughts about the shortlist (see his post here). I am not sure I will have time to devote to this worthy activity but I will try to chime in when I can.
I have read Bombay’s Republic on the shortlist by Rotimi Babatunde. Nice. Babatunde is the first writer ever that has ever made me gaze awestruck at an 89-word sentence. Yes, 89 words, that is his opening paragraph. And it is one gorgeous lumbering sentence rolling past the eyes with an enchanting attitude that reeks of confidence, like a train of colorful, pretty cars:
“The old jailhouse on the hilltop had remained uninhabited for many decades, through the construction of the town’s first grammar school and the beginning of house-to-house harassment from the affliction called sanitary inspectors, through the laying of the railway tracks by navvies who likewise succeeded in laying pregnancies in the bellies of several lovestruck girls, but fortunes changed for the building with the return of Colour Sergeant Bombay, the veteran who went off with the recruitment officers to Hitler’s War as a man and came back a spotted leopard.”
Babatunde displays a good mastery of his craft and shows that he has a distinct voice even as his prose offers lovely hints of VS Naipaul. He coolly ignores traditional conventions of writing even as they yell at him (“Use short sentences!” “Where are your quotes, young man?”). I was pleasantly surprised by his audacity and creativity. For the main character, Bombay the Nigerian, going to Burma, war is the beginning of change:
“Bombay had seen a lot in the war. Diarrhoeic Europeans pestered by irreverent flies while the men shat like domestic livestock in the open. Blue eyes rolling in mortal fear as another enemy shell whistled past. But never before had he imagined one of his imperial masters degenerating into a state so wretched. He found it good to know that was also possible.”
The story takes us on a trip to Burma and World War II as told through the eyes of one of thousands of West Africans that fought that war and endured prejudice and racism from Whites and Asians alike. Exile bears a tart, unique taste in his mouth, and pops out of unlikely places (Babatunde describes homesick soldiers feeding “on wild bananas lined with pawpaw-like seeds but tasting like detergent”). Beyond the banalities of exile, dislocation and the push and pull of physical boundaries, war is also about the politics of power, race being a major subtheme:
“A man was still a man and a leopard a leopard while the old jailhouse was a forsaken place not fit for human habitation. A white man was the District Officer who went by in an impressive white jacket and a black man was the Native Police constable who saluted as the white man passed. This was how the world was and there was no reason to think it could be otherwise.”
Bombay, the major protagonist does not overwhelm; listening to the recruits drawn from distant places on the continent of Africa, speaking a plethora of languages, the bedlam of dizzying change makes for a delightful reading stew. Here, you can see Ceylon the island, you can smell the ambience. His illustration of racism is quirky, clever and effective.
“Reports had come that the pants of the African soldiers were sewn three-quarter length to conceal their tails and the headman was bringing his villagers to confirm if this was the case. Bombay was not angry. He simply found it interesting people could assume he had a tail. The chance of anyone having such a belief was something he had not considered possible.”
Like a good storyteller, Babatunde makes you think. I thought of reading Henry Rider Haggard’s books as a little boy and learning now, understanding now that his novels that I read were neatly bound reams of racism, misogyny, with some anti-Semitism thrown in. Also, Babatunde introduces a clever parallel with Okonkwo of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and affirms to me my passionate belief that Things Fall Apart is evergreen in its universality and vision. Themes of nationhood, independence and change are cleverly addressed through the lunatic antics of Bombay returned from war to a Nigeria that has changed without him; Okonkwo returning from exile and finding that yes, things have fallen apart.
Unlike Biyi Bandele’s novel, Burma Boy (see my review here), the English language is not contrived, is not in the way; as a vehicle it carries the weight of the story nicely. I must say however, that despite the experimentation, the story is a bit too long and has whiffs of orthodoxy. It is a carefully designed story, too meticulous. Babatunde made sure, like an MFA student, that all the elements of a short story were present; it’s as if he checked them all off: setting, plot, conflict, character, point of view, theme, etc. Still, I love this story. Please read it for yourself right here.
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