Thursday, June 25, 2015

Space | Masande Ntshanga | Caine Prize 2015 Shortlist

Masande Ntshanga’s Space is a story that, on face value, doesn’t have much in it. Its title and opening paragraph are suggestive of an extraterrestrial tale. However, it settles into a story about a group of juveniles (CK, Thando, Thobela, and the unnamed narrator) doing what juveniles do—stuff that their parents or guardians would generally disapprove of, such as drinking and making sorties to dubious places. As the story progresses, we see the distance, alienation and isolation of an ill father being trumped by his son’s unashamed and simple declaration to his friends, 'This is my father.'

This appears to be the main point—and a subtly powerful one too. CK isn’t put off by the desolation and bleak existence of his father caused by his illness, and endeavours to show him to his friends. The characterization of the sick man as an ‘alien’ serves to dramatize his isolation and to present it as an abnormal situation that unsettles his son enough to somehow rationalize it in more palatable terms. Even at that young age, it disturbs CK enough to seek strength in alcohol, which he offers to his friends before showing them the ‘alien,’ saying 'You need a little strength for this.'

The narration of the story from the point of view of another young boy comes out great. The reader is put in the mind of a juvenile and the language he uses—for instance, ‘The way it’s getting hot is that when you go without shoes, you can’t.’ In addition, the writer is able to present situations to the reader without really making them obvious, couching them in a young mind that simply observes without fully understanding. An example is the scene at Thando’s driveway, which leaves the reader unsure whether Thando resents the return of his ‘father, the Bishop,’ or has been told to dissociate himself from his friends who have ‘collected sin.’

Hints, dropped in innocuous looking one-liners, seem to tell the stories behind the story. Readers who like cryptic mysteries would enjoy Space more. One can suppose, for instance, that Space is really about fathers—absent fathers. While we see CK’s father (who is sick and isolated), and are passively referred to Thando’s father (who has just returned), Thobela’s and the narrator’s fathers aren’t named. It is perhaps telling that Thabo asks the narrator not to pay him for the ride, that he ‘should count it as a favour to my mother,’ and that ‘we share a clan name.’

Masande pushes some boundaries regarding the depiction of juvenile behaviour. We see a bit of drinking and some manipulation, such as deliberately trying to fail Afrikaans class to avoid being taken to ‘white school’, which can be expected of kids of that age. However, we also see the scene with the stolen panties, which would perhaps not generally pass off as typical.

Typos don’t count for much, but I noticed 'Mrs. Sindiwe' in one paragraph and 'Mrs. Siviwe' in another, presumably referring to the same teacher.

All in all, Space is a story that demands some thinking from the reader, one that is easy to dismiss on the first read. It is nevertheless subtle in its depth, and seems to be open ended in terms of interpretation.

Picture Credit: Caine Prize

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