Namwali Serpell’s The Sack is an enigmatic story, revealing itself from alternating points of view—that of a narrator, and of ‘the man’. It is set in Zambia, and is about an uneasy friendship or comradeship between two men, Jacob and Joseph (one is simply named ‘J’ and the other ‘the man’, so I couldn’t quite figure out who is who). They are presented as having been friends/comrades (in a political sense) for a long time, a relationship that has nonetheless been complicated by Naila, a woman who both men loved or fancied, as well as the fact that J. is working, resentfully, for ‘the man.’
Serpell starkly paints a range of emotions and feelings throughout the story—resentment, disillusionment, love, longing, suspicion, and fear. These are interwoven beautifully through shifting points of view and symbolisms, according the story an aspect of enigma that intrigues the reader. ‘The sack’ appears to symbolize death. The use of the first person point of view to portray the man’s longing for Naila infuses a great deal of power and feeling into the story, and inexorably sucks the reader into the man’s fears and suspicions. The result is a picture of physical and emotional anguish that startles in its intensity, for the man’s dreams in the end appear to merge with a hallucinatory reality of death, which, whether by killing or by suicide, is a matter of conjecture.
Transformation also emerges as a key theme. It is suggested that Jacob, Joseph and Naila considered themselves equals at some point in their history, presumably when they were involved in liberation politics. Naila has passed away but is shown to possess an enduring influence over both men. This fact, the colour of the man’s skin (it is suggested he is white), and ‘how far (J) has fallen, sweeping and cooking for me like I’m a musungu,’ all transform their relationship to an uneasy, even hostile one. In addition, one is better off materially, while the other is poorer, perhaps bound by some debt to the man. One is gravely sick, while the other is shown to flaunt his vitality. Changes in their material, physical and emotional aspects acquire a transformative influence.
The role of the boy in the story is somewhat puzzling. Is he the man’s son with Naila? He muses, ‘I know this boy is not my son but I have to concentrate to keep it in mind.’ In the ending, the boy has notions of hunger and fear in his mind, but also love—perhaps fatherly love that he longs for? That’s some puzzle to mull about!
Well, this was a bit of a tricky read. I enjoyed it more after reading it the second time. I would have preferred a little less mystery—straightforward naming of the characters, for instance, wouldn’t take too much from the story, which nevertheless is superbly written. I especially liked the wonderful descriptive snippets, such as ‘His breathing rasped, shaving bits of silence off the air,’ and ‘His words cut through the smell of fish and illness, through the boy’s whimpering hum.’
Fair to say, it’s an engrossing read, one of my favourites in the shortlist. Namwali Serpell was also shortlisted in 2010, and I am inclined to say, on the strength of this offering, that she stands a pretty good chance of winning the Caine Prize this year.