Launched twelve years ago, the Caine Prize celebrates short fiction from Africa. And judging by 2002 Caine winner Binyavanga Wainaina's scathing satirical article "How to Write About Africa," it's about time. In collaboration with The New Inquiry and a horde of like-minded bloggers, I’ll be writing about this year's five finalists—and linking to each story so you can read it yourself.
Part 1: Nigeria’s Possibilities
This was how the world was and there was no reason to think it could be otherwise. But the war came and the bombs started falling, shattering things out of their imprisonment in boxes and jumbling them without logic into a protean mishmash. Without warning, everything became possible.
Rotimi Babatunde’s “Bombay’s Republic” [PDF] is nominally a war-veteran story, but the story is more about the nature of belief. The eponymous narrator arrives on a ship to Ceylon, where he is trained to fight the Japanese. He learns that the native Ceylonese believe he and the other Africans have tails. When he finds his nationality the target of another, worse misconception, however, his reaction is physical; he feels “queasy and [has] to steady his rising urge to puke. That people would imagine he was a cannibal was something he had not thought was possible.”
But the story's carefully engineered revelations are not limited to those of our protagonist. We're forced to realize that the war he fights was quite real—brought to a close with the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But this war has not even merited a footnote in our mental history-books. “This is not the Forgotten Front,” Bombay’s platoon leader declares, “and we are not the Forgotten Army. Nobody has ever heard of us so they can’t even begin forgetting about us.”
Bombay returns to his country and home with this enlarged universe of possibilities in his head, and with newly opened eyes he establishes a country of his own. He does not return home to restore order and continue an interrupted story (like Homer's Odysseus) or to reassert authority and direct a story to its proper end (like Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway); he returns to live out a completely new story of his own—a story which is logical to Bombay, but not to his perplexed compatriots.
I suppose I've lied. This isn’t a story about the nature of belief, but a story about stories, and the power they hold over us. Why has this war, which has been narrated repeatedly in books and film, become a “forgotten” war? Why does the author, Rotimi Babatunde, have his narrator focus not on death or religion but on what can possibly be believed? Why does this story open and close with a man who has commandeered a jailhouse in which he voluntarily imprisons himself?
The chair of judging for this year's Caine Prize, Bernardine Evaristo, called for "stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa—in short: The Tragic Continent." Does this story succeed in that sense? Does it expand my mental image of what the continent contains? Does it show that Africa is complicated and that Africa is real?
To all those questions, I have to say I believe so, yes, I believe this.
Here's the story as a PDF: Rotimi Babatunde's "Bombay’s Republic."
Below is a list of the other bloggers also contributing to the discussion. Check back for updates.
image credit: The Forgotten War, wsj.net