May 10, 2012
Caine Prize Shortlist: Rotimi Babatunde

The 2012 Caine Prize for African short fiction is upon is. Thank you to Aaron Bady from Zunguzungu who has invited me to participate in the Caine Prize blogathon. Over the next weeks I’ll be commenting on the five shortlisted stories, starting with Nigerian Rotimi Babatunde’s "Bombay’s Republic".

It’s a pleasure to read Babatunde’s consistently clear prose. He follows an Aristotelean literary model with beginning, middle and end, and leaves few narrative gaps. This strategy results in a linear account, starting with Bombay the protagonist’s recruitment into the Burma Campaign during the Second World War, his hellish experiences of war, concluding with his return to Africa, ascent to renown, and descent into insanity.

From the outset Babatunde titillates the reader with the promise of Bombay’s metamorphosis: Bombay left for war “as a man and came back a spotted leopard.” The catalyst for the transformation is not only the war, however, but more specifically the racial integration brought about by the wartime conditions. It is during the war that Bombay is confronted with the absurdity of racial prejudice - that he has a tail, or that Africans are cannibals -  and himself accepts racial equality - coming to terms with the white and black man’s equal vulnerability in the face of violence. Bombay himself comes to stand as a symbol for racial integration as his skin quite literally becomes mottled with battle scars and dark stains where he burned off leeches. His skin is now a “leopard’s coat,” an intricate weave of light and dark, white and black.

Where Babatunde breaks with linearity, is his refusal to offer any definitive moral lesson. On the one hand, the war’s violence is positively tinged in its ability to neutralize racial prejudice. Bombay later reduces the atrocities he endured, describing the conflict in passive terms: “We did them no harm and they did us no harm, we only tried to kill each other as often as we could.” On the other hand, by the end of the story he installs himself as a dictator of his imagined Republic of Bombay, and fabricates an etymology for the original city pivoting exactly on violence: “The city was called Bombay because its streets were littered with bombs through which pedestrians must carefully tiptoe.” As such, the story ends with ambivalent logic: Bombay endures violence in order to understand racial equality, but instead of sharing this knowledge back home, he founds his own tyrannical, violent state - after all, he urinates on and shoots at trespassers, and “always flew into a rage” when not treated as an absolute superior.

Yet perhaps in some roundabout way, Bombay does mean to share his wartime insights. Perhaps he hopes that the people around him will achieve his insights through a similar practical process instigated through firsthand contact with violence. Mirroring the white captain, initially “oozing superiority” then disintegrating under the military stress, Bombay also gives himself airs and elaborate titles, then appears to lose his sanity. Bombay might not lecture on racial equality, but he does enact a farce with his one-man republic, leaving the meaning of this farce up to his audience to decipher.

Fellow bloggers’ reviews:

Method to the Madness
The Oncoming Hope
Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott
The Mumpsimus
The Reading Life
Practically Marzipan
Cashed In
City of Lions
Black Balloon