Caine Prize 2012: "Bombay's Republic," by Rotimi Babatunde


It's time for the Caine Prize! Once again, Aaron Bady, of the superlative blog Zungu Zungu, has organized an army of bloggers to cover the award. The Caine Prize sets out to publicize the works of otherwise-ignored writers from the African continent. (If you're interested in the mechanics, you should read this post, which covers the politics of the prize and recent rule changes.)

One of the joys of this collaborative reviewing experience is the way that each blogger brings their own back-story to the reading experience. It relieves some of the pressure to comment on every aspect of every story, a bore for both writers and readers. As a result, you can expect my reviews to run the gamut from poli-sci based analysis to more traditional literary analysis to explicit personal analysis.

"Bombay's Republic," by Rotimi Babatunde

"Bombay's Republic" is a story about stories. It's not a Borges-ian labyrinth, bringing to life the way that stories morph and wiggle and manifest in the strangest of places, but a picaresque, taking advantage of the way stories are used to bring light to the strangest places.

Just as Bombay encounters myths of himself abroad, he perpetuates myths about places even further abroad, such as Bombay and Calcutta.

The Black Hole of Calcutta becomes an especially effective metaphor. To an Indian-American who feels all the post-colonial angst of my parents and grandparents, the phrase itself has a racist subtext, even without the back-story. It's an effective illustration of the way that stories themselves become symbols.

In reality, of course, the Black Hole of Calcutta refers to a prison. By speaking of a prison that he doesn't even understand, Bombay effectively condemns himself to his own prison, a shining beacon on a hill (an idea with its own subtext), that traps him in his own delusions. When madness sets in and memory leaves, all we have left are stories, our myths, the thoughts that seep into our very consciousness.

Unfortunately for Bombay, he had the opportunity to create his own story, but went home instead and trapped himself in delusions: first the delusions of those who conquered his race, then his own delusions of grandeur.

In some ways, the ending lets down this beautiful construction, turning him not into Don Quixote, but into a strange fairytale character who doesn't quite deserve his happy ending.

While the story isn't perfect, it's great to see the Caine Prize engaging with different genres of fiction this year (granted, this is only the first story I've read, so there's still room for disappointment). Babatunde's story sets a bar for creative fiction that both engages with its own setting and focuses on being good fiction. There's no poverty porn here. I hope the other stories follow suit, and I look forward to the thoughts of my blogger colleagues (blogeagues?).

Join in the quivering chorus of our fellow participants:

Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott

Method to the Madness

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