By Misha Grunbaum

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 2: Kenya’s Zones

“The Zone” is the locus of Billy Kahora’s "Urban Zoning” [PDF], this year's Caine Prize finalist from Kenya. The story is actually set in Nairobi, a city in Africa known both for its commercial clout and its astonishing nature preserves. And so we see here both commerce and nature, the one inverted and the other subverted as we watch the protagonist Kandle navigate the Zone.

What is the Zone? It is a state achieved after seventy-two hours of drinking. It is a “calm, breathless place”; it is a place both externally achieved through alcoholism and insomnia, and internally achieved by directing one’s mind towards pleasant thoughts. It is an area of strangeness, where the months of the calendar become colored in a synesthetic spasm of Kandle’s mind, and an area of danger, where Kandle’s friends have all succumbed to risky impulses.

I’m reminded of another Zone that takes hours and days to get to, and boasts strange sights for those who make it there: the one in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. Tarkovsky amped up the Zone’s vivid colors by painting the leaves of the trees. Why do the film's subjects all struggle to get to the Zone? Because it contains a room that grants its visitors' wishes.

And in the same vein Kandle’s fantasies are fulfilled in his Nairobian Zone: he gets a leave from his work as a banker and so gets money for free; he succeeds in overcoming his deep-rooted aversion to close contact in order to fool everyone around him. The end of the story pulls away from the vividness of Kandle’s Zone to the larger (and stranger) terrain of Kenya proper, and the story ends with two men:

[B]oth laughed from deep within their bellies, that laughter of Kenyan men that comes from a special knowledge. The laughter was a language in itself, used to climb from a national quiet desperation.

If alcohol and little sleep helped Kandle achieve an unusual inner state, so laughter helps the men both make the emotional trip away from the ugly reality of Nairobi’s streets toward a happier place, contained entirely within their minds. Kandle isn’t the first one to have discovered the trick of urban zoning, but he seems to have been the wiliest. The Zone is everywhere, even as the Zone is fleeting. What remains? Kenya, in all its varicolored reality.

Here's the story as a PDF: Billy Kahora’s "Urban Zoning”

Below I'll post a list of the other bloggers also contributing to the discussion on this story.

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