Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Caine Prize Blogathon: The Intervention

Tendai Huchu’s The Intervention, shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing this year (find the link to the story here), carries as much heft in analogy as it is lighthearted. A group of Zimbabwean friends in the United Kingdom meets socially, and what unfolds is a half-hearted intervention aimed at resolving a couple’s relationship problems – an intervention that is hindered by news on television on elections in Zimbabwe, and is, ultimately, as unsuccessful as the real life intervention in that country.

The story’s lightheartedness grips one from the first paragraph, and serious minded folks may find it a little superfluous that it has been shortlisted in the first place. They might find the thin prose a little off-putting. Older folks, having to ruminate over phrases like “effing Zulu”, “got me a Bud”, “ultra-crap”, “meant a fart”, and more, might find it a flippant reminder of the waywardness of the language of modern youth. “Afro-poets” might find resonance with the narrator’s sudden poetic outburst, as spontaneous and passionate as it is; in fact, they might find the entire story a poetic polemic of Africa, an anguished cry of whither the motherland. Huchu actually provides a wonderful description of poetic souls:

“There’s a sixth sense by which poetic souls become aware of one another. By poetic souls, I mean not only poets or readers of poetry, but those for whom poetry induces profound emotion and a heightened understanding of the world.”

For the young and young at heart good timers, well, they might see it as a jolly good story on how not to take life too seriously.

However, let not the story’s lightheartedness and simplicity deceive you. It is a well meaning commentary on quite a number of issues – Zimbabwe’s and Africa’s malaise and hopeless interventions; lives in exile – such as helplessness (“Nothing we said or did meant a fart”) and dislocation (kids not speaking Shona); and contradictions – Z is secretly happy that The Party has won as he has a pending asylum application which would have been jeopardized if the opposition won. The analogies are all too clear, and quite apt. There is no scratching of the head, no attempt at literary esotericism, and thus the story is easy to connect with.

Is Huchu’s offering a throwback to NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names – whose juvenile humour and lightheartedness makes reading through heavy themes effortless, much like The Intervention? Will it win as We Need New Names won? Well, we just have to wait and see.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Caine Prize Blogathon: The Gorilla's Apprentice

The shortlist for the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing was announced on April 22, 2014 (see the shortlist and links to the stories here). As has become customary, bloggers are encouraged to give their thoughts on the shortlisted stories.

I therefore begin with “The Gorilla’s Apprentice”, written by the well-known Kenyan writer and director of Kwani?, Billy Kahora. Set against the backdrop of the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya, it is at once a story about the individual and the collective – the individual lives of Billy; his mother Claire; a fugitive from the 1994 genocide, Professor Charles Semambo; and Sebastian the gorilla, as well as the collective lives of Kenyans in the grip of the post-election violence.

Jimmy and Semambo are attached to the gorilla for different reasons. For Jimmy, the attachment is a form of escape from poverty and a broken family – his mother is separated from his father, alcoholic, and has numerous boyfriends. For Semambo, well, he is presented as having a history from Rwanda with the gorilla. Hence, as their individual lives become worse, so does that of the Kenyan collective, and the Rwanda genocide becomes an unstated reference point as to what might result.

It is a good story, told in straightforward prose, and it highlights some important issues such as corruption, poverty, inequality, prostitution, broken families, animal welfare, and of course the post-election violence. The simple prose may cause one to underappreciate the import of these issues.

The portrayal of Jimmy as an introverted young man troubled by poverty and a broken family is very convincing; and so is that of his mother as losing grip of herself slowly to alcoholism. Semambo is also believably seen as edgy and haunted by his past. Sebastian the gorilla, with his looks of resignation borne of an awareness of his time, and his restlessness when the post-election violence – in his mind a throwback to the genocide – breaks out in nearby Kibera, aptly conveys a human side of the animal. Perhaps the convergence of the human and the animal (people butchering each other in the violence) is the crux of this story (“as the two figures became one”).

However, there’s a nagging feeling of loose ends that needed to be tied up. For instance, the reason why Jimmy had to take a photo of Semambo isn’t quite clear. Did he want to blackmail Semambo? Does Semambo get the photo finally? Their trip to Jimmy’s house seems a little preposterous, seeing that when Jimmy once again asks if Semambo can teach him to talk to Sebastian the gorilla, they immediately set off to the Animal Orphanage (Sebastian may not have much time), forgetting the reason why they had to go Jimmy’s house in the first place.

In general, I believe The Gorilla’s Apprentice is a relevant and conscientious reminder of the Rwandan genocide and the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya. Given what is happening in various parts of the African continent, especially in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, we must never tire of these reminders.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Bird Anonymous

Pretty little bird
I see you up high, perched, and unstill
Ruffling brown feathers, ruffling black tail
Perhaps you’re itching, I do not know
Looking up, guarded
Looking down at me, guarded still
Silhouetted against the sky blue
The sun shining on you
What you think of me, I do not know
But you chirp, not singing, but chirping
Maybe at a mate, maybe at your young
Maybe still, at your frustration
Truth is, I do not know
Standing tall, tail bobbing up and down
Breast puffed, neck stretched
And eyes bright, looking this way and that
Jumpy, excited, maybe worried
I want to, but I do not know
Finally, suddenly, flaps of wing on wing,
Quick and rhythmic, musical
And off you go, maybe bored
Maybe miffed I didn’t chirp back
Maybe I’m not good company, I do not know
I catch myself – a void now covers me
Alone, with a wistful sigh
And a smile embarrassed
Over a mind lost on a bird anonymous
Why, although I try, I do not know. 

Picture credit: Inhabitat.com

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

One Hundred Years of Solitude

It is said that Gabriel Garcia Marquez took eighteen months to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. In those eighteen months, it is said, basic supplies dwindled in his house, his wife had to get them on credit for a few months, and they were in arrears in their rent obligations. Whatever it was he was writing, he must have been inspired.

It shows. Marquez’s inspiration, I mean. It flies off the book’s pages, wafts sweet magic through your eyes, and ends up inspiring you as well. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a work of such depth and breadth that it leaves you lost for words. It is such a fantastic (literally) leap of imagination (and fantasy, if I may repeat myself), a breathtaking expanse of fiction, raw fiction that does intimate tango with objective reality, that it beggars belief. They call it magical realism.

One Hundred Years of Solitude speaks of solitude (duh). It tells the story of seven generations of the Buendia family in a fictional Latin American town of Macondo. Starting with the family patriarch, Jose Arcadio Buendia, down six generations to the last Aureliano Buendia, solitude is an enigma the family cannot escape, even though they try. Jose Arcadio Buendia tries to solve the mystery of the existence of God and the writings of Melquiades the gypsy; his son Jose Arcadio goes off with the gypsies and tours the world but returns with nothing to his name; his other son Colonel Aureliano Buendia leads thirty-two rebellions against the government and loses all of them; his daughter Amaranta remains unmarried and dies a virgin in old age; and so on. Their descendants try by all means, outlandish and modest, but fail to escape the badge of solitude stamped and preordained upon them as foretold by Melquiades the gypsy.

It is a story infused with as much realism as fantasy; as much politics, corruption, and capitalism as family ties; as much life as death; as much youth as old age; and as much tragedy as happiness. Sometimes it reads like a bedtime story, for instance, when we see Remedios the Beauty, whose beauty causes much tragedy, floating off to heaven; or when Jose Arcadio Segundo can’t be seen before the very eyes of a military officer hounding him. Many times it reads like a political protest, as when the Conservative federal government massacres Liberal workers in Macondo and rewrites history to erase the massacre. Sometimes it is a love story, as between Amaranta and her successive suitors, or between Jose Arcadio and Rebeca. Sometimes it is a story of lust, as between the sixth generation Aureliano and his aunt Amaranta Ursula.

Many times it is a tribute to family – Jose Arcadio Buendia’s wife, Ursula, the matriarch, tries to hold the family together many generations down. She succeeds, but the family unravels after her death. Where there was prosperity, poverty creeps in. Where there were boundaries, they are erased. Incest, her most dreaded fear, finally happens after she dies, between the sixth generation Aureliano and his Aunt. A child with a pigtail is finally born.

The story of the Buendias is enmeshed with that of Macondo. Macondo is founded as a simple town by Jose Arcadio Buendia, who himself starts a simple family. As Macondo grows in complexity, so does the Buendia family. They both go through enormous upheavals, and when Macondo declines, so does the family. When Macondo is finally swept into extinction by a mythical dry wind that comes after many consecutive years of rain, so is the Buendia family.

In the end, it has to be an epic story about the human condition. It is not only about the Buendias, it is about the rest of us, the human race. I am sure anyone who has read this book (it was first published in 1967) has found a little bit of himself or herself in it, a point where it felt as if he/she was peering into the mirror at their reflection.

Perhaps the story is made more astounding by the style with which it is written. The prose (we acknowledge the superb work of the translator from the Spanish, Gregory Rabassa) has a certain urgency to it that urges you to read on, while retaining great detail and vividness. It presents without dwelling, states without pontificating. As you read, you are taken on a delightful journey of twists within sentences and turns within paragraphs; no sooner does your mind settle on a tangent than the story takes on a new one. A storytelling masterpiece, it has that quality of leaving you behind, having to catch up breathlessly. It is a beauty.

Try getting yourself a copy, if you haven’t read it. Please?

Picture credit: Goodreads