This year's winner of the prestigious The Caine Prize for African Writing, Bombay's Republic, by Nigeria's Rotimi Babatunde, comes as a watershed in the on-going debate among literary critics on how to write about Africa.
The debate has been between those who allege that the tenor of most prize winning stories show that Western prize administrators hanker after a literary disaster pornography of the continent and those who affirm that anything to the contrary will be fantasy.
Bombay's Republic while not exactly a Technicolor rendition, presents a refreshingly different way of looking at "African Writing". It is written with an unapologetic vivacity and a socially conscious subject matter. Critiquing it is an intellectual delight as its trajectory touches a whole gamut of issues on both content and style.
Bombay's Republic comes through with an easily apparent narrative architecture in the classical tradition of introduction, main body and conclusion. It starts with the colonial authority's war efforts in the protagonist's homeland to the actual expedition in India and Burma and back to the war's aftermath mirrored through Bombay, the protagonist. The story is a poster copy for this classical three-tier format.
Again Bombay's architecture benefits from the creative use of its transitions to drive home particular nuggets of the story. The major inadvertent fallout of WW II was how it opened the eyes of its African participants and unleashed the quest for independence on their return. These moments of penny drops correspond to the many transitions of the story giving off great pungency in the overall aesthetics of the story.
The popular wisdom is that you have to learn the rules of writing in order to break them. As it turns out, Babatunde must have learnt a lot of them going by the quantum of shards in Bombay's Republic's trail.
The first smash-up is up-front in the first sentence-paragraph. Writing purists will tell you to write in short sentences. But Bombay's first sentence is 91-word "short". It should take the gold for the most sententious opener in a major contest. It also violates the rule of the paragraph as a composite of sentences instead it is a one-sentence paragraph, the tree that made the forest. But the first paragraph is not found wanting in the other requirement for openers to whet the appetite of the reader like gourmet appetisers. Bombay's opening sentence-paragraph is suspenseful enough for a tentative reader to be drawn into the rest of the story only on its strength.
The other egregious violation is that of (not) using quotation marks for direct speech. Bombay's dialogues are shorn of the inverted commas. They meld into the rest of the narrative making the text appear, at a cursory look, like history text. However, the use of speech tags and double line spacing for the direct speeches seem to have made up for the quotes for the reader. It goes to show that there is a functionality to the use of inverted commas which can not be easily sacrificed on the alter of style except an alternative provision is made. It is a moot point how far the alternative provisions made in place of the inverted commas went in being more effective or efficient. But as far as feeding the uniqueness of style goes, dumping the inverted commas seems to have worked well for Bombay's Republic.
Again, "show don't tell" has been to creative writing what the off-side rule is to football - the beginning of wisdom. Like the off-side rule, you can sneak past the line and beat the trap if you are smart. For writers who are able to pull it off, the new rule is to show and tell. There is a lot of showing and telling in Bombay's. Babatunde employs this a lot in his transitions where, having earlier showed the act, he goes ahead to now tell it. In the second transition of the story, he states: "The only terrain on which he would war was forty-four days and several bouts of seasickness from his homeland by ship, in an alien jungle where after two years of nightmarish combat as part of the Forgotten Army he would be stunned by the realisation that everything he thought fantastic was indeed credible." Here, the telling anticipates the showing. I have earlier noted how the transitions in the story come in as mini resolutions. Babatunde may therefore have pulled off 'telling' at these junctures to drive home his points but many a critical reader will feel condescended to by the practice.
Another swim against the tide which Babatunde executes and for which one would have wished to interrogate him at a reading, is his decision to hide the real names of Bombay, the protagonist and the name of his hometown. Conventional literary wisdom weighs in on the side of having a physically identifiable locale and using naming in aid of characterisation. Throughout the story, the protagonist is identified by his pseudonym even before he acquires it. Using the agency of the opening flashback, Babatunde identifies the hero of the story by "Bombay", a name he was yet to acquire.
He also never mentions the name of Bombay's town even if it was to be a fictive one. In doing this, Babatunde may have decided to make his narrative generic, a one size that will fit any former British African colony. He only suggests by a reference to Achebe's Okonkwo that Nigeria is the locale at the national level. Methinks a personal name for Bombay and his community would have done the story more good. Being of Yoruba extraction, the writer could have earned some cultural mileage by situating the Nigerian half of his story in a Yoruba community and giving his protagonist a telling Yoruba or English name to promote contrast. This need not cancel the protagonist's telling pseudonym. This omission becomes more intriguing as the author uses other real life place names with respect to the main theatre of war in Burma (Myanmar).
The desideratum in breaking writing rules is that the violator is able to pull them off. Without allowing its win to becloud our judgement, it would appear that the story is able to get away with most of the breaches. Again, one may argue that it is the case of success having many fathers leaving failure an orphan. If Bombay's Republic hadn't won, will its normative breaches appear so hip?
Bombay's Republic is a paean to research the background of which the author has led us into in his subsequent interviews. According to Babatunde, "Sensory details have primacy in all fiction so the most important thing for a writer working on historical fiction is to accumulate enough of these, in order to give the reader a feeling of complete immersion in the lived experience of an age gone by. For 'Bombay's Republic', I depended primarily on the direct testimonies of veterans rather than processed historical summaries."
It is one of the inescapable ironies of fiction-writing that one is writing a lie that has nonetheless to show some fidelity to the truth. Even in fantasy and other genre fiction sub categories where subversion of reality is of the essence, one finds this primal inevitability of reality. If Chimamanda Adichie could write so credibly about the Civil War fought before her birth, it is no surprise that Babatunde could be so savvy about colonial era Nigeria and WW II. He does not merely regurgitate his research in his writing, he fleshes it out with an eye for the dramatic and the humanistic both woven with elevated diction into crystalline prose and a compelling read. The elevated diction of the author just manages to escape highfalutin by its organic linkage to the soul of the story showing it is not forced. In a way, it evinces the articulation level of the author and no un-indolent reader should feel insulted by it.
Babatunde's imageries in Bombay's Republic are very apt and strong. His lizard-gecko wedding analogy of the European - Japanese belligerents is spot on. Such native wisdom is redolent in our psyche and community ethos and a local variant of it refers to not meddling in a Fulani - Hausa quarrel.
Bombay, the story's eponymous hero, leaps off the page as a tribute to his creator's credible characterisation. His ilk were all over Biafra, a tribe of shell-shocked, traumatised veterans denied of proper psychological rehabilitation and existing on the fringes of society as "Atingbo", the artillery veteran.
Going forward, Babatunde's well-rounded story and strong writing give the lie to "African Writing" as a pejorative term. I couldn't feel prouder being an African writer after reading him. His writing can hold the candle to the best in the world. Sadly, this cannot be said for some of the previous winners. The preceding winner is a study in the apologetics of African writing.
In the pantheon of past winners, Bombay's Republic stands head and shoulders above many of its fellow champions. This is not surprising for a story so painstakingly put together since 2005 and well-aged like vintage wine. The undulating quality of The Caine Prize archive should unleash a soul search into the make-up and ideological preferences of the selection team in every Caine Prize year.
Is it a coincidence that Bernardine Evaristo, the chair of judges, in the subject year is genetically linked to the continent and set out from day one to de-stereotype African writing? As it turned out, she succeeded brilliantly in her quest. Having raised the bar and shown conclusively that Western literary prizes are not necessarily out for the disaster pornography of Africa, my bet is that subsequent years are going to see more of unapologetic stuff like Bombay's Republic.
Mike Ekunno is an award-winning writer and book editor.