In an initiative hosted by Aaron Bady (ZunguZungu), I'm joining a gang of awesome bloggers in reading and blogging on the entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year. You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. There's five stories on the shortlist, and a review will be going up every Friday. This is the first one.
The first story the group will be reviewing is “Hitting Budapest”, a story by Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo. What I liked most about the story is the dialogue between the characters, how real it was. I liked the hard-edged innocence of aspiring to be better thieves coupled with not seeing there is something really wrong when a girl is impregnated by her grandfather, scarcely even knowing where babies even come from. I liked how it's not exactly drilled into you that these kids are not the wealthiest. The first thing you learn about them is not their poverty, but that they are kids. And truly, that's all you need to know.
What I didn't like, however, was how I was not sure why there was any need for this story at all. One bothers to write a story, I believe, to point out a moment where things change, either the moments leading up to the change, or the fall-out of the change itself. Basically, I think that a piece of fiction is best when it chronicles a momentous time in a character's life, and the fall-out from such an occasion. Stories can stop and start a narrative so we can zoom in and out like a camera at details and skip backwards and forwards in time, showing to the point of stark nudity particular instances in a character's life in a way that film or any other medium may not be able to. I can't say that this story really does that here.
Perhaps the point she was getting at was that they got to see themselves through the eyes of this random woman in this really upscale neighborhood, but that particular thread wasn't dragged through the story. We get no sense of how the kids were affected by this meeting, save for feeling indignant at her taking a picture of when without so much as offering them food. Maybe the coupling of meeting someone they thought as strange and insensitive with the confronting of a suicide was meant to hint the reader at something about their not knowing how miserable their circumstances are. But they do. They know enough about their situation to want to escape it. Their entire day in the story, they talked about escaping, to Budapest, to America, to South Africa. At the end of the story, I don't know why Bulawayo chose this particular time in the characters' lives, or get any sense how this particular trip to Budapest warranted telling. In sum, I don't know why she wrote the story at all. I don't always think stories ought to have some sort of moral lesson or even a “point” as such; I just like knowing, after I read a story, why it was written in the first place.
In spite of what I've said, and the ending (I found it a bit rushed), I liked reading the story, and I probably will check out more of the writer's work. One of the most gratifying things about this juncture in African literature is how urban some of the stories are, how current, and how younger folks are willing to talk about social issues without moralizing. I'm sure I've said this in this blog before, but I really hate how almost necessary it is as an artist in an African country to feel the need to be topical and have something to say about whatever burning issue there is in our polity. We can't always write about HIV/Aids or poverty, after all, and even if we do, we can't, for the sake of creating art, forget that reality is all about telling stories about people and the very flawed, ver fascinating lives they lead. Even when writers talk about poor people, the best art puts it at the forefront of our minds that we are dealing first and foremost with people, celebrates that humanity before it decries the situation that it lives in, and quietly when it does so. This story does that, as does so many stories people are coming with these days, and that should be applauded.
To see how the other bloggers liked (or not) this story, check ZunguZungu for updates with more blog reactions.