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’ve been writing about this year's five finalists—and linking to each story so you can read it yourself.

Part 5: South Africa's Riddles

As I read Constance Myburgh’s “Hunter Emmanuel,” [PDF] I was reminded of the literary critic Michael Dirda’s recent Q&A on Reddit:

More than 30 years ago I predicted that mainstream literature would be invaded by "genre" fiction, and this seems to be happening. Writers like Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon and others came out of science fiction and comics...I think that we are seeing what SF critic Gary Wolfe calls the "evaporation" of genre lines, and fiction is bursting with all sorts of new inventions and possibilities.

“Hunter Emmanuel” is a hard-boiled detective story torn straight from the headlines of the nineteen-forties. It was published in Jungle Jim, which bills itself as an African pulp fiction magazine. “Hunter Emmanuel” is very much a generic story—not in the figurative sense of being predictable or boring, but in the original and literal sense of adhering to a genre.

Mainstream “literary” fiction itself is a genre of sorts. It is largely realistic, largely psychological, and largely preoccupied with the exacting and poetic use of language. As such, I don’t particularly feel like ranking literary fiction as a genre better or worse than other genres. And that's a good thing, because this story seems to be describing a whole lot more than a detective’s investigation of a disembodied leg in a tree, and the woman the leg came from.

This is a story from South Africa, a country that has experienced splits and divisions of many sorts—political, physical, linguistic, racial. Hunter Emmanuel has decided to figure out how the leg was parted from its owner, why one ended up in a tree and the other ended up in a hospital, and what motives might lurk behind all this. If this story were to be taken as a literary allegory, it wouldn’t be hard to posit that the female represents South Africa in one sense or another, while the male detective is an outsider trying to understand divisive actions already completed. But there isn’t quite enough evidence in this story to complete the analogy. All the same, Jenna Bass, the author and filmmaker who has taken Constance Myburgh as her pseudonym, has expressed openness to such interpretation:

I think many films I’ve made, or written, have political elements, even if not on the same level as The Tunnel; I don’t think you can help it if you live in a country where political decisions are particularly visible. At the same time, I don’t like the idea of profiting off of message-based films.

As with films, so with literature, including the stories in Jungle Jim, which she edits herself. There's clearly much beneath the surface of Myburgh's South African-accented prose, and so I hope the continued adventures of Hunter Emmanuel open doors to more conjectural interpretations.

Here's the story as a PDF: Constance Myburgh's 'Hunter Emmanuel' 

Check back for a list of the other bloggers contributing to the discussion on this story.

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