The ever-awesome blogger ZunguZungu has once again arranged a bloggers' review of each Caine Prize story. Check out his introductory post here. It's great to be a part of this for the second year in a row, and I'm hoping that this batch of story is an improvement upon last year's because... well.... yeah.
OK, here comes the first of the reviews. It's for Rotimi Babatunde's Bombay's Republic (pdf). Co-bloggers' reviews at the bottom of the page.
First of all, I like how the story was written. In addition to some gorgeous phrasing from Babatunde, the third-person narrative and the "clash of cultures humor" reminded me of the film "The Gods Must Be Crazy", especially the scenes where the natives thought the black soldiers had tails, or the Japanese thinking that blacks must be chopped to bits when killed, else they resurrect like zombies. The point of view also provided enough distance from the actual story -- the war, the racism, the absurdity, the pathetic circumstances for the black soldiers -- for some parts of the story to actually be funny.
I found Bombay's character very well-drawn. He was a simple man to begin with, content with the life of a soldier. I like how Bombay did not return to Nigeria and take up the role of freedom fighter for against the scourge of imperialism. All he seemed to want to do was return to his home country and live a quiet life. For a story that deals with racism and imperialism (The Oncoming Hope's review will deal with this more), it made sense to not have the lead character initially be exceptional. Too often in African literature, writers foist upon their characters the burden of their history. Babatunde's approach to this story -- from the narrator's distance to the humor and the characterization -- is a shrugging off of any attempt to have this story be much more than a piece of fiction. One could not but smile at District Officer's quandary over whether or not to punish Bombay over refusing to pay taxes, particularly on how Bombay may mount a successful attack against whatever soldiers would be sent to take him in. He had forced his humanity upon DO, made the British see him as a force to be reckoned with.
Everything Bombay's time at war showed him pointed to his humanity and the humanity of the British he was with. It made sense that he would resist paying taxes, or even use Bombay's Republic as a way of scaring off the British like he used his bellowing at the enemies during the war to scare them into retreat. I was not expecting at all for him to become quite so self-important as to draw up a constitution and call himself President. This new egomania seemed out of character, and it is indeed possible that he went mad. What makes Bombay's madness uncertain, though, is that you see no sign of it when he was in the jungle, and the narrator says nothing about any particular episode that haunts him.
Further, I know the last bit about his birth country being a foreign one was meant to be funny, but I never got the sense that Bombay held any resentment towards Nigeria for "allowing" itself to be controlled by the British. After all, he did not even seem to really mind being a part of a forgotten platoon in the army. We know later -- and expect even while it was happening -- that also "forgotten" was to be the familiarity between the white and black soldiers, and whatever it is that black soldiers like Bombay had learned was possible.
In his own twisted way -- even as he channeled his inner Yaya Jammeh and the titles he gave himself became more and more grand -- Bombay's ambition never did grow. He learned so much about what was possible behind the thick curtain of imperialism and got a glimpse of what it was like to be seen as fully human by the white men that he soldiered alongside, but these were obviously never lessons he knew what to do with. Not that one could fault Bombay for that; what does one do with knowing that colonialist is as human as you are, when the state structures in your home country support the idea that he is not? if you're not of the temperament to agitate with the independence activists, what else could you do?
So when he did found his own republic, it was to rule himself, to make laws governing his one-man republic, and to get independence for no one else but himself. It may be just as well that Bombay never did get any more citizens (the jury is out on whether more citizens would have changed his behavior). For him, this independence was as good as it got, and there was no one to question him as he bestowed himself with titles that he had done nothing to attain. It was also just as well that Bombay was not a rich "country", and perhaps this failure of the lead character's ambition is Babatunde's point: you must check all colonialists at the door, even the ones that look like you.
Read all the Caine Prize shortlisted stories:
- Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria) ‘Bombay’s Republic’
- Billy Kahora (Kenya) ‘Urban Zoning’
- Stanley Kenani (Malawi) ‘Love on Trial’
- Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (Zimbabwe) ‘La Salle de Départ’
- Constance Myburgh (South Africa) ‘Hunter Emmanuel’
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