Sunday 20 May 2012

Caine Prize Shortlist 2: Urban Zoning by Billy Kahora

I sometimes wonder whether some of the Tragic Africa narratives get overrated just because they present a familiar story told from a familiar angle.  I'm always surprised at how willing my NRI (non-resident Indian) relatives are to gush over the latest piece of NRI literature or cinema, no matter how cliched and worthless it might be, just because 'I could really relate to it'. Yes, well. Right. I can see how that works but. Literature isn't just an echo chamber. In the turd-laden tide of English novels with awkward titles like 'I too had a love story', 'You were my crush!', 'An IIT love story' and so forth that's currently washing across Indian bookstores in the wake of Satan Bhagat (oops hyperbole alert) there may well lurk passages that jibe with some of my own experiences. Does that make them good books, leave alone the somewhat loaded L-word I've been using unexaminedly in this post? Not necessarily.

But I'm rambling. Or maybe not. Part of what I understand from Evaristo's kinda-manifesto and other commentary is that literature from the African continent needs to be seen and practiced on more levels than just documents of the troubles faced in those regions. To veer away from the more facile 'time we move on' aspects of Evaristo's rhetoric, I think it is perfectly valid for me to expect to be able to pick up this story here, Billy Kahora's 'Urban Zoning', and read it and feel it speak to me, story to reader, without doing a tonne of homework in advance. That's how I read 'The Master And Margharita', 'The Magic Mountain' and 'East Of Eden', all novels written within contexts quite alien to me (Soviet Russia, pre-world wars Europe and depression-era USA respectively). Maybe I have more practice in this sort of thing because I often read stories in places that are more comprehensively alien to me, like Kadath, Bas-Lag, Lyonesse, Viriconium, Dhalgren and Middle Earth.

So. 'Urban Zoning' starts out by plunging us into the boozy cruising of one Kandle, a young man who retreats from the vicissitudes of life into the Zone: a three-day drinking binge that he has refined to a fine art. Kahora describes the Zone and Kandle's world of pleasure-seeking young urbanites so well that I started feeling a little sozzled just reading. There's a brilliant little bit of literary synesthesia that also lets us know about the framework within which his latest binge is being undertaken:

A philosopher of the Kenyan calendar, Kandle associated all months of the year with different colors and hues in his head. August he saw as bright yellow, a time when the year had turned a corner; responsibilities would be left behind or pushed to the next January, a white month. March was purple-blue. December was red. The yellow haze of August would be better if he was to be fired from his job at Eagle Bank that evening.

Like many people with such epic drinking habits, Kandle is wounded. There's mention of childhood sexual trauma. Previous forms of escape - sport and sex - have proved less than optimum. Now, Kandle breezes through life like a sort of chameleon, working just long enough to get the money to head back into the zone and baffling his employers, staid, conservative men who see themselves as logical successors to departed colonial masters and are in fact tainted by corruption - accused or real. Kandle finds it easy to fool these self-important, devious naifs, turning on the charm at will, squeezing out the waterworks on command. He's a trickster, the sort of beating-the-system raver a lot of young men would love to be. When it all is over, after a virtuoso performance where he dissipates the ire of a managerial tribunal looking into his absenteeism and then, speaking to a manager whose own  career is under something of a cloud, he tacitly admits that he has no intention of returning to his banking job. The story ends with the manager and Kandle laughing - a laughter that comes from the knowledge of a quiet desperation that is not English but Kenyan.

This story is a more or less complete success in many ways. It is written well - vivid, absorbing and with some inventive passages. It is entertaining but not inane, deep but not ponderous.  It is both specific and universal, but in case I seem to be advocating that a writer from Kenya should write by way of shedding his own unique experiences and all that context I spoke about in the beginning, what I'd really like to get at is that your context can only ever truly be your own. Mann may have though he was diagnosing an entire civilisation, and many of his readers (including me) have thought this as well before delving a little deeper and concluding that he has done so, if at all, through the lens of his unique sensibility with its unique advantages and drawbacks. On a forum I frequent, we recently discussed Elliott's contention that poetry needs to move towards universal truths, magisterial summings-up, and how this can hinder the writing and reading of poetry. Beckett is probably closer to the truth, or its impossibility, although both have contributed equally to the store of fine things to read. Well, Beckett a bit more but that's because he wrote so much more and of so much more consistent a quality. But getting back to this story and all the half-backed thoughts I have around it, I admire Kahora for writing a story that doesn't back away from his context - but takes it on in a personal, honest,subjective way. He writes from his own urban position of relative privilege instead of giving us another trawl through hellholes that we would do better to turn to reportage to learn about. And even from a purely functional (and not at all irrelevant) perspective of asking how well this story puts me in the picture, makes a part of Kenyan come alive here in my Bangalore living-room, Kahora scores high points. I can relate to Kandle; I know people like his partying buddies; I've worked for addled assholes like his bank managers. It's like the gunfire in the background of another brilliant story by Kahora, The Gorilla's Apprentice: it's not just stage-dressing. The fact that it can be just a background element - until it no longer is - to an already powerful and gripping narrative brings home the enormity of that violence in a way that a more strident, obvious narrative couldn't. Besides, Kahora hasn't lived that story; instead, he tells you the stories that he can understand from within instead of forcing out the story that he thinks 'we' 'they' - someone - expects.

I loved Rotimi Babatunde's story because of its elements of satire and fable; pure imagination in the service of a serious subtext. I love this story because of how lived-in it feels, how it draws me into Kandle's boozy, swaggering, tormented life and for the story's smart, conscientious engagement with perspective and context.

Here are all the other posts about this story:

Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
Backslash Scott
City of Lions
Practically Marzipan
Cashed In

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