Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Caine Prize Shortlist Review - Billy Kahora's "Urban Zoning"

The ever-awesome blogger ZunguZungu has once again arranged a bloggers' review of each Caine Prize story, and once again, I am among the number. Here's a review for Billy Kahora's story "Urban Zoning" (pdf). Better late than never.


This one was a hard nut to crack for me.

Let's start with the plot, shall we? Kandle is a young man who rather prefers a constant state of drunkenness to sobriety. We meet him when he is 72 hours into this particular drunken spell as he walks the tight rope between good and bad zone, keeping his countenance equanimous, his thoughts positive. All this while, he is arranging his face, his thoughts, his mind for his ultimate "performance" the meeting with the board of the bank where he works.

In the course of the story, we learn that Kandle has a grown into a man wary of closeness to people, and possibly averse to commitment, seeing as every relationship we see him in has him abusive his position (with the house help), manipulative (with his employers), or without any sense of attachment at all (all the references to casual sex). We learn that he is a fair-skinned Kenyan man, and there are hints that his family is at least relatively well off. His name is Kandle, which brings to mind "candle", the inevitable burn-out of youth. We even see, at the end of the story, an attempt by Kahora to universalize him, calling his and his friend Ocuotho's laughter "a language in itself, used to climb from a national quiet desperation." In that final sentence of the story, we are to affix Kandle and his story in the fabric of larger Kenyan society (something I personally cannot speak to).

The problem is, I don't see what I'm supposed to do with all these observations. I wonder if there is some larger point to this story that I am missing, because the story is set somewhere I am not familiar with, or perhaps I feel this way because there is not much resolution here. We get to know this very interesting character, but then what? Urban Zoning is almost nothing but a character sketch. This is allowed, of course, in an Open City kind of way, but it is not quite enough for me in this particular case.

I'll give it to Kahora, though; he writes a hell of a story. My only grouse with the writing is how, towards the end of the story, the author "zoomed out" from Kandle's point of view, but even with that, you can't but love Kahora's observant eye, the darkness of the story, and the fantastic prose. There is a real rhythm, real music, to his sentences. I especially like the vividness of this section:

 Starting off toward Harambee Avenue, Kandle wobbled suddenly, halting the crazy laughter in his chest. Looking around, he felt the standard paranoia of the Zone start to come on. Walking in downtown Nairobi at rush hour was an art even when sober. Drunk, it was like playing rugby in a moving bus on a murram country road. Kandle forced himself back into the Good Zone by going back to Lenana School in his mind. Best of all, he went back to rugby-memory land, to the Mother of All Rugby Fields, Stirlings, the field where he had played with an abandoned joy. He had been the fastest player on the pitch, a hundred meters in twelve seconds easy, ducking and weaving, avoiding the clueless masses, the thumbless hoi polloi, and going for the girl watching from the sidelines. In his mind’s eye the girl was always the same: the Limara advert girl. Thin and slender. Dark because he was light, slightly taller than him. The field was next to the school’s dairy farm, so there were dung-beetle helicopters in the air to avoid and mines of cow-dung to evade.

I love a well-written story. This one just isn't for me.



Read all the Caine Prize shortlisted stories:

Fellow bloggers' reviews of this story:

Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
Backslash Scott
Ikhide
Loomnie
ndinda
City of Lions
zunguzungu
Practically Marzipan
bookshy
Cashed In
aaahfooey
The Mumpsimus
Soulfool

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