Thursday, June 16, 2011

Caine Prize for African Literature - Story Blogging Week III

In an initiative hosted by Aaron Bady (ZunguZungu), I am joining a coterie of awesome bloggers in reading and reviewing 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. This week's story is South African Tim Keegan's "What Molly Knew". Here is my post on the first story and the second.

This is another story that slow-drips on detail - you don't know immediately that Tommie is "more black than white" and that he's an ANC member. You don't get a full picture of dead Sarah Nobrega and why she left until pretty much the end of the story. While Molly pretty much tells you early on that she's with Rollo because, well, where else is she to go, nothing in the beginning prepares you for what happens in the end. I wish the story was more vivid, that the imagery was "painted" as opposed to having the surroundings reeled off like lists, but this seems to be Keegan's style: you're told only what you need to know at this moment. You will know more when the time is right, and it works.

I like the characterization of this very much. The voices are very distinct, and Molly is very well-drawn. You know, right from the onset, her fears of being alone and her regrets, the single-mindedness with which she carries on her tasks about the house, and even feel some pity when watching her maneuver the minefield that is living Rollo. And we are told everything we need to know about Rollo, except that one important thing -- I'd hate to spoil it for whoever hasn't read the piece yet -- but you can almost hear the gruffness of his tone, and the reason for the self-righteousness with which he talks about Sarah in the beginning becomes all to clear at the end of the story.

For outsiders to South Africa's post-apartheid society like me, it is nice to have the scene at the hairdressers where one gets some insight into what the big deal was about Tommie being black and an ANC person. He is colored, but he's picked a side, and the parallel is made quite clear that Tommie bringing his black-power ANC life into the neighborhood is not unlike Tommie bringing his, well, blackness into Sarah’s family. I like how the race issue is layered with resentment for his apparent role in Molly losing her daughter (we think this until the end of the story) and Rollo not getting along with Sarah. Race here reminds me of what we are seeing in parts of the U.S. polity in the Obama era: while not the sole cause for animus, race acts as a sort of amplifier of difference that further sours discourse and deepens resentment. In the case of this story, race makes more stark the differences between the kind of the life she led in her marriage, and the life she left behind with her mother.

It is very difficult to not think of J.M. Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning Disgrace when you read this story, and compare the way race is handled in both. Both paint grim pictures on race relations in South Africa, and the tension that follows when black and white "worlds" collide. The collision in this story, at the funeral service at the church hall with Tommie's black ANC friends, is much less violent than the rape in Disgrace, but still hostile and the discomfort of the two whites, Rollo and Molly, was very telling.

Below is the major quote of the story, and it comes early on:

He knows that all citizens are equal in the new South Africa, but he can’t help but feel some people’s pain more than others’. That’s just the way he is, and the newspapers and television people seem to think the same way, to judge by the posse of reporters and cameras outside Sarah Nobrega’s flat in Goodwood when he left.

There is a certain, for lack of a better word, selfishness in this quote that permeates the entire story. Molly is more concerned about her sense of normalcy than putting her daughter’s killer to justice. Rollo is more concerned about himself than anyone else and, as is hinted, even killed Molly’s daughter out of this selfishness. Sarah didn’t much care about how Tommie would received in her family; she went ahead and married him anyway. It is not for nothing that the only one who made a move that would affect the lives of everyone else in the most positive way was shot dead. It’s an insightful, quietly damning portrait of the people depicted in the story, and perhaps of South Africa's new society at large.

Check out ZunguZungu for updates on what other bloggers had to say about the story as they come.

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