09 May 2012

Blogging the Caine Prize 2012: "Bombay's Republic"



This is my first post in this year's Caine Prize for African Writing blogathon, organized by the ever-awesome Aaron Bady (Zunguzungu). Our participant numbers have grown exponentially this year, which is very exciting. If you don't remember from last year, the basic idea is that a bunch of us bloggery people write weekly posts about each of the short stories nominated for the Caine Prize, so helpfully provided in PDF form to anyone who wants to read them at the Caine Prize website. We will do our best to keep our posts updated with links to each others' posts, creating a giant hyperlinked conversation. The virtues of this are many — none of us feels obliged to be comprehensive about the stories, there's the potential for extremely different viewpoints to be offered, and, no matter what, a bunch of people are writing and reading about African short fiction. I'll post the links so far at the end of this post, and keep it updated as more appear over the next few days. 


And now, to the story: "Bombay's Republic" by Rotimi Babatunde, which you can read in PDF form via this link.




The first thing you should know is that "Bombay's Republic" is a delightful story, a story that, for me, fit all the requirements for that old cliché: a pleasure to read. I say that because this is not always true of Caine Prize nominees, or, to be honest, nominees for all sorts of literary awards — there can be, with some nominees, a certain sense of ... dutifulness. Stories dutifully written and dutifully read.

And yet I wonder about that statement, now that I've typed it. Where, exactly, does dutifulness live in a text? Where would I get the perception that a writer was writing dutifully rather than passionately? How would I respond if the writer were suddenly beamed into my living room and said, "Hey, you! I wrote that story because it's a story I had to tell, a story that burned at my fingertips, a story that, if I didn't tell it, would have caused me to spontaneously combust! There's nothing dutiful about it!"

While it is the word that most quickly comes to mind when I think of many (not all, certainly) past Caine Prize nominees, I am also suspicious of it, because it seems to hide an utterly subjective evaluation behind a somewhat objective-sounding statement and also to close down a discussion of what, exactly, caused the evaluator to have such a feeling: what in the text failed to evoke a response in a reader due to that reader's expectations of texts, knowledge of contexts, and experience of life and reading.

Therefore, what I will consider here is the way I perceived "Bombay's Republic" to be very much different from a dutiful story, to be, in fact, the sort of story where the first word that comes to mind when I think of it is delightful.

Qualities essential for delight: playfulness and whimsy. The writer may be burdened by the seriousness of the universe's problems and calamities, or serious about aesthetics, or determined to convey Serious Ideas to an audience — but the approach, the energy between the words and lines, is based on what perhaps Calvino was going for in his discussion of lightness. Not frivolity: that is different. Think of Glenn Gould's fingers.

Playfulness and whimsy are displayed in Babatunde's choice to have his protagonist rename himself "Bombay":
He got the name which replaced his original one from the tales he told about Bombay. The city was called Bombay because its streets were littered with bombs through which pedestrians must carefully tiptoe, the veteran said, except if one fancied levitating sky high as blown-up mincemeat.
Named for a city he's never been to, named for a fantasy, named for the sound of the word and the associations it conjures. Playfulness, whimsy. (The associations it conjures are of death, destruction, danger. Seriousness.)

There is a whimsical playfulness at the heart of "Bombay's Republic", right in the basic premise: a Nigerian man fights in World War Two, returns home, inhabits an abandoned jail, declares himself a liberated country, and, after certain conflicts with the colonial state, is allowed to remain liberated for the rest of his life, and even to go on visits to other countries as an entire government unto himself.

It's a concept worthy of Vonnegut (or Mamatas). I wouldn't call this story itself a satire, but it has its satirical moments, its satirical flourishes. Satire can be terribly leaden and unplayful, but here it is infused with whimsy:
The longer he stayed in power, the more Colour Sergeant Bombay found it necessary to give himself ever more colourful titles. Lord of All Flora and Fauna. Scourge of the British Empire. Celestial Guardian of the Sun, Moon, and Stars. Sole Discoverer of the Grand Unified Theorem. Patriarch of the United States of Africa. Chief Commander of the Order of the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic Ocean. Father of the Internet.
Official signs of heroism and power haunt Bombay through his war years, when he learns that his greatest powers are symbolic: the mythic savagery and animality of the African soldiers is a powerful weapon against the Japanese. As a reward for the effects of this mythic power, Bombay is given a medal. He protests that "he had taken his action not because of bravery but out of fear, and deserved no honour." His Lieutenant is amused that Bombay is naive to his own power and naive to the ways of patriotic awards. An award is a type of propaganda. An award is as much about the award giver as the award receiver. Bombay is a smart man, perhaps even a certain sort of genius. He learns his lessons well.

Actions are less important, ultimately, than their perception. What happened is not as powerful as the story of what happened.

One of the other (of the many) delights of "Bombay's Republic" is that it is a story very much aware of itself as a story and, more importantly, aware of itself as a story about other stories. It becomes a paradoxical amalgamation of two Orson Welles titles: It's All True and F for Fake. Stories become realities.

The Allies drop literature: "We fuelled those rumours by dropping leaflets on the enemy, warning them that you will not only kill them but you also will happily cook them for supper," and the Japanese suffer a universalized human response: "They don’t mind being killed but, like anyone else, they are not in any way eager to be eaten."

Bombay thinks about the effect of that litbomb via another: "He contemplated the emotions  experienced by the Japanese soldiers as Bombay’s squad bore down on them and the  terror that must have gripped the enemy on concluding it was a clan of cannibals  from Henry Rider Haggard’s gory tales making a sortie for lunch."

He links the myths about black soldiers resurrecting to other myths:
Just like Lazarus?

Why?

And like Jesus Christ, your saviour?

A scowl had replaced the smile on the officer’s lips. Yes, he said.
A fictional character is, in this story, real: "Afterwards, smoking as daylight began reddening the east, Bombay remembered his countryman Okonkwo whose story would become famous some years after the war when it was told in a book titled Things Fall Apart."

All stories are real. It's all true. Narratology recapitulates ontology, and vice versa.

The story itself is a kind of fairy tale, a perfect form for all it seems to want to say and be. (Fairy tales can be sources of delight. At the same time, they can be unsettling. Consider, for instance, "The New Mother". Delightfully unsettling.) This is not a story about the harsh, realistically real realities of gritty reality — or, rather, this is not primarily that, because it is that, yes, but by way of misdirection and sleight of hand.

Among other things, this is a story about the stories of "Africa", and who gains and loses power from those stories, and who has the power to tell and spread them.

It's about the names we give things. It's about the rumors we spread with our litbombs. Its about the myths we believe, the myths we make real. Realities and fictions and the ways they cohabitate, the ways they breed. It really wasn't so long ago that travelers reported Africans had tails, and the myth has proved to be resilient. And they all live in mud huts, you know; even the tax code knows this.

("This is the story of how I became a spotted leopard, he said...")

The story's very story-ness is part of its delight. It revels in words and their mutability. If Wittgenstein was right ("The limits of my language mean the limits of my world"), then Bombay unlimits his world by unlimiting his language. He liberates himself through stories, and the stories become true, and he becomes a story. He was, at first, a victim of other people's absurd stories about him — he was a subject of their stories, subjected by their stories, until he made himself his own subject, and through this newfound subjectivity became his own king. He found an abandoned jail and turned it into a home and into a country.

In the end, he is the subject of an obituary, a final story, the last narrative most of us can look forward to.

The obituary has a title: "Bombay's Republic". It's the title of the story we are reading.

Update (5/11): An ever-growing list of other posts on the story is below, but I want to call special attention to a really interesting point made at City of Lions in response to my own post here. It's a somewhat different reading than mine, but a compelling one:
The opening sentence gives us virtuosity, and then the rest of the story takes it away. It promises a man who becomes a leopard, but gives us a storyteller who dutifully explains that the round scars on his body technically come from leech bites. And then he growls at children. It tells us of a world in which “without warning, everything became possible,” and then shows us that world – it’s a man alone, in a jailhouse, surrounded by his own fancy titles, and free only to the extent that the authorities can’t be bothered to pull the plug on his prank.

Other posts on "Bombay's Republic": 
Accrabooksandthings
Method to the Madness
The Oncoming Hope
Bookshy  
Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott
Zunguzung
aaahfooey
The Mumpsimus
Ikhide
Loomnie
To Make Poesis
The Reading Life
Inkdrops
Practically Marzipan
Cashed In
ndinda
City of Lions
Black Balloon

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