Zoning In

Round 2 of the Caine Prize blogathon! Conversation has been much slower than last week – did people relate less to this story? Is it too much to have 19 bloggers giving their thoughts on every short story? In any case I’ll keep this post much shorter than my last one.

Kenyans seem to love stories about bank robbers. One of the most popular books in Kenyan history, My Life in Crime by John Kiriamiti, tells the inside story of Kiriamiti’s very stylish reign of terror as a bank robber in the 1970s. It’s a great read and has inspired a slew of imitations, including most recently a feature film. (You can count on me reviewing that one when it comes out.) The book remains popular – it’s one of the few Kenyan books from the 80s that hasn’t gone out of print – and has the rather special distinction of having become a bestseller here without being assigned as a textbook.

On the surface Billy Kahora’s short story “Urban Zoning” [pdf] doesn’t much resemble the Kenyan “bank robber” trope. The main character Kandle, “self-styled master of The Art of Seventy-Two-Hour Drinking,” seems more like one of Binyavanga Wainaina‘s blustering, angsty loners than the suave and dangerous Kiriamiti of legend. Yet the resemblance slowly becomes clear, not least because Kandle also steals money from a bank (though Kandle’s weapons are apparently family influence and fuzzy excuses rather than a semi-automatic). Both drink too much. Both imagine themselves minor heroes of the Nairobi rumor circuit. Both are obsessed with clothes and with putting on a slick facade. Neither is overly concerned with protecting those few people who are close to them. And both are able to bluff their way out of responsibility for their failures.

What Kiriamiti (the character) has in abundance that Kandle lacks is exuberance. Even at his most depressed Kiriamiti still pulses with vigor. Kandle, though, never seems to live fully in his own skin:

“As he went up Harambee Avenue, he realized he was well into the Bad Zone. Looking at his reflection in shop windows, he felt like smashing his own face in. And then, like a jack-in-the-box that never went away, his father’s dark visage appeared in his mind’s eye, as ugly as sin. He wondered whether the man was really his father.”

It’s the narrative voice that makes the link between self-hatred and internalized racism (dark = ugly & sinful), not Kandle himself. The anger Kandle feels towards himself isn’t resolved into anything like self-knowledge, it doesn’t dissipate, it just gets ignored as his attention shifts elsewhere. As a storytelling technique it’s incredibly wasteful – all that potential face-smashing energy simply passed over with a non-committal “he wondered.” But of course even if Kandle’s self-hatred is forgotten, it isn’t left behind. It haunts the story like an unsolved crime.

As an elaboration of an individual consciousness the story may not hold a candle to Bessie Head‘s deep swirling madness, and comparing it to Kiriamiti’s rebel in the city leaves something to be desired. What makes “Urban Zoning” compelling in its own right is the way it fuses these modes, the urban and the psychological, to develop what I think is an incredibly exciting style of writing about African cities. The story asks, in what way are the physical zones of Nairobi through which Kandle flickers like the mental spaces, the “Good Zone” and the “Bad Zone,” that he spends his life pursuing and avoiding respectively? While it’s no great revelation that Nairobi has some very good zones and some desperately bad ones, it’s a real mindfuck to try to think of these areas as analogous to mental states. What does that even mean? It’ll draw you into the same sense of unreality that you might achieve after drinking for three days straight. You might, like Kandle, wind up thinking that a month is a color.

As it must be clear by now, I find it much more compelling to read “Urban Zoning” as a William Gibson-esque urban thought experiment than as psychological realism, national allegory, urban grit, or any of the other modes that this rich, convoluted, defensive story suggests for itself. Among these I find the national allegory – a form that Stephen Derwent Partington recently called “a slightly boring form of arrested [literary] development” – the most distracting. Sometimes it’s subtle, as when the story shifts to a high school which has produced many of Kenya’s national leaders, shifts again to Harambee Avenue, and carefully includes names from several different Kenyan ethnic communities. Other times it’s more urgent, as when it throws in a bewilderingly random cameo by the President of Kenya, and speaks earnestly of a “national quiet desperation.” Every one of these gestures is awkward and unnecessary. The inter-generational struggle at the heart of the story – between an old guard that struggled for independence and now screws teenagers and watches its ass, and a new generation of media-saturated consumers who are cynical about all heroes – can and should stand on its own as a commentary on the state of the Kenyan psyche, if there is such a thing.

Still, this is a rewarding story. Among its many delights are a series of amusing (if brief) character sketches, and sprinklings of local idiom like “shenzi type.” (A Nairobi radio station has a regular spot where callers make fun of the chutzpah of boorish, uncultured “shenzi types.”) At that level it’s much more accomplished than the other shortlisted stories. Kahora is also well aware of the “disaster poverty porn” genre, exemplified for Nairobi by Uwem Akpan’s story “An Exmas Feast”, and takes welcome pains to make his main character much less likable and much less a victim, even though both stories equally associate Nairobi with degeneracy. But “Urban Zoning,” like its anti-hero, is constantly repressing its laughter. Both are too jaded, too unsentimental, too much about style and surface to let themselves go. If there’s a quiet desperation here, it’s that of a story that can only afford to let loose a deep belly laugh when there’s nothing all that funny to laugh about. The mood, not the message, is what proves the story’s worth.

Other bloggers weigh in on this story:

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

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