The blogger known only as Zunguzungu has created an ‘army of bloggers’ to help him attack all the short stories in the 2012 Caine Prize shortlist. I happen to be one of the gladiators in this army but a rather indisciplined one. For one, I haven’t had time to cope with the spartan schedule that was designed. Some bloggers have already finished reviewing all the stories and here I am starting with my first one! Anyways, I’ll catch up. At the very bottom are links to reviews by the other bloggers.
P/S – Readers may want to check out the following excerpt of what looks like a Billy Kahora novel in the works. It sheds more light on the ‘Giant Rat’ mentioned in the story for a nanosecond, and the background of Urban Zoning. Plus it has more on Kandle.
The story as Gorilla read it
Nairobi is a living, breathing body. It’s an animal alive with a pumping heart. Four million blood cells, each one called Kandle, flow through a network of blood vessels. These blood vessels are the streets, roads and highways: An Aorta called Tom Mboya Street is ‘the calm, breathless place’ where Kandle practices ‘The Art of Seventy-Two-Hour Drinking’; there is the fifty-kilometer Vena Cava stretch, called Thika-Nairobi highway, which Kandle’s cousin Alan tragically attempted ‘to do’ in fifteen minutes. And so on.
There are suburban organs strewn across the body of Nairobi. Kandle is an ‘icon’ in the city’s kidneys, liver and spleen, ‘Westlands, Kile…and Ridgeways’; Kandle downs a shot of ‘Insto eyedrops’, criss-crosses the ‘Buru’ lungs, and becomes haemoglobin enough to oxygenate and bring ‘back life to the City Centre’.
Kandle has history. Back in the bone marrow days of Lenana School he was young and fit enough to clear ‘a hundred meters in twelve seconds’, virile enough to wet dream about ‘the Limara girl’ and then make a ‘Fresian cow’ metamorphose into a ‘goddamn Zebu’. So carelessly virile that even his maid, Atieno, tried on his jeans (and he caught her with them only half way up).
And Kandle grows up. He discovers ‘the Zone’. Because this animal, Nairobi, is seething with complexities. Kandle finds he gets depressed and lacks confidence when facing the sober realities of the city life. He is ready to ‘cut his palm’. There is a ‘huge bank balance sheet in the center of the desk’ and he has to account for his inability to learn ‘the meaning of duty’. This is the ‘bad zone’, the zone which is ‘the place of all fears, worries, hatreds and anxieties’. Nairobi practices bad magic and Kandle can be turned from blood cell to intestinal parasite and forced to play in a scrum with homosexual tapeworms. Escapist addiction, like alcoholism, helps Kandle live in the ‘Good Zone’. This is what helps the four million survive. Alcoholism is the symbol. It could be anything. Kandle’s video game addiction, or Kandle’s obsessive church activity, or Kandle’s rugby, or Kandle the shopaholic, or Kandle the ‘sixty-year-old tycoon’ who can’t stop bedding teenagers. Every Kandle could have his/her own ‘Urban Zoning’ story. Every Kandle needs a ‘smooth transition to the Good Zone’ or Nairobi will puke or shit him/her out through an orifice.
What does this story have to offer?
1. Nairobi City as the main character.
This idea is what sets it apart from the other stories in the shortlist.
Kandle is nothing but a thought Nairobi is thinking. (Or a microscopic bloodcell in the Nairobi body). By turning the humans in the story into mere details of the overall character description of Nairobi, Kahora gains tremendous freedom to explore with impunity the multiple dimensions of the city.
For example, after examining what I would call the Nairobi outdoors (the partying in clubs & bars, the high school experience, drunk on Tom Mboya Street etc) Kahora suddenly slips the story into another dimension by taking Kandle into the building of Eagle Bank. I thought this was a brilliant touch. Sometimes we forget there are two bodies living inside the Nairobi animal. Just entering a building or house or movie theatre in Nairobi and it’s like you are inside another life form of the city — An indoor life form with its own unique biology, rules and regulations, and laws of physics. Out there in the streets, it’s different. Kahora flips the coin and we see the other side of the character.
2. Innovative story structure
By having Nairobi City as the main character, Kahora gets the chance to do away with the traditional plot structures. Maybe this story has no plot. There is what looks to me like a long exposition (all the pre-inside Eagle Bank stuff), then a set piece inside Eagle Bank followed by a sudden conclusion — A strange and interesting structure. I think this allows Kahora to roam around and tell us about anything without having to justify the logic of what role this or that plays in the story.
For example, the next point I want to make –
3. Microscope fiction
Kahora takes slices of Nairobi life, puts them under the microscope, and shows us what he is seeing. ‘Urban Zoning’ is studded with details of the Nairobi life.
Let me take a page at random…page 211 as per the attachment on the Caine Prize site. This is what we have:
Susan’s promiscuity (sleeping with Alan, then with Kandle, then with Kevo).
Keeping alcohol levels intact to stay in the Good Zone.
Experience of walking in downtown Nairobi.
Running a hundred meters in twelve seconds.
Looking poster girls on billboard advertisements.
Rugby at Lenana School.
Cows on a dairy farm.
The above collection of ideas/details (or whatever) would be more than enough for one short story. Starting out with one thought: Outside on Tom Mboya Street, Kandle realized that he was truly in the Zone, Kahora adds a second and third and by the end of it all there are dozens of ideas that build on that first one. A drop of Kandle’s sweat is teeming with life forms. The richness of detail allows the story to keep giving birth to itself in unexpected ways. Blood cells multiply exponentially.
Or maybe it’s like flipping through TV channels. It’s takes only one TV set to show many different worlds. There is a strange harmony in the method.
4. Nairobi comes alive
The famous blogger, Ikhide, says:
The good thing about Urban Zoning is that the story makes me pine for Binyavanga Wainaina’s genius. Kahora is no Wainaina. Wainaina’s book, One Day I Will Write About This Place features lush undisciplined prose, Nairobi comes alive, and the reader falls in love with Nairobi, sex, shit and all.
Yes, Kahora is no Wainaina. He just knows his Nairobi way better than Binyavanga. It’s true, Binya’s book does have generous doses of ‘lush undisciplined prose’ but the Nairobi described in it is a fake one. I don’t buy Binya’s Nairobi. It’s not the one I have lived in since I was born. Hell no, that’s not Nairobi. (But Ikhide has a point regarding the ‘coming alive’ bit…see one of the random thoughts below).
The Nairobi in Urban Zoning, on the other hand, is fucking real. The Urban Zoning Nairobi is the one I eat, shit, sleep and have sex in. It’s the one I see with my eyes when the sun rises or when the bulbs light up.
From the way Kandle speaks, “Fucking African, what time is it?”…or just this dialogue between Kandle and Kevo:
“There are about five Jamo Karens.”
“Jamo Breweries. Dad used to be G.M.”
“Don’t think I know him.”
“You do. We were at his place a month ago. Big bash. You disappeared with his sis. Susan was mad.”
That’s the voice of the young Nairobian. That is how we speak. If I meet my buddies this coming Friday evening, that’s how our talk will go. Kahora does something impressive in this story. He brings out the voice of the young middle class Nairobian. That’s not an easy thing to do. And he has done it very well in this story.
The future kicks off with Urban Zoning
The style Kahora has employed in ‘Urban Zoning’ (microscope fiction, having a whole city as the main character, an ultra-flexible plot structure, writer as camera, concentrated and ambitious prose etc.) is different from the old stuff in Kenyan fiction. This is 23rd century fiction. With this story we begin something new.
There are already some Kenyan bloggers who are taking a further step. These are our unknown writers. In fact, some don’t even know they are writers and are only blogging for fun or because of some unconscious inclinations. Take two examples from this blog called ‘Just Sham it’.
(The writer/blogger/unknown is not yet published. Just imagine if this guy writes a short story and is put in the same room with a good editor.)
What we are seeing here is not even Kenyan Fiction. It’s more specific. It’s Nairobi fiction. Writers who are born, brought up and living in Nairobi, and so instinctively understand its nuances. I believe stories like Urban Zoning can only be written by a Nairobian. Sooner or later we shall see similar things happening in other Kenyan cities and towns. I firmly believe all sorts of new writers with new ways of writing fiction will come out of nowhere and the whole Kenyan literary scene will be redefined in a radical way. The time bomb has been set off; we just need to wait for the big bang.
Urban Zoning is the shape of things to come. Some people are dismissing the story on superficial grounds but they better get used to the style because it’s the future.
The flaws Gorilla sees in Urban Zoning
Kandle enters Eagle Bank then goes to the boardroom. Just before his interrogation starts we have this:
There was a seat right in front of the desk for Kandle. Just as he was lowering himself into it, sirens blared, and everyone in the room turned to watch the presidential motorcade sweep past, out on the street. The man, done for the day, heading home to the State House. Kandle grinned, and remembered shaking the President’s hand once when he was in primary school, as part of the National Primary School Milk Project promotion. There was an old photo of Kandle drinking from a small packet of milk while the President beamed at him. The image had been circulated nationwide, and even now people stopped Kandle on the street, mistaking him for the Blueband Boy, another kid who had been a perpetual favourite in 1980’s TV ads.
I like this. They are all inside the other Nairobi, the indoors one, looking out at the outdoors Nairobi. And there is a neat flashback. We get to see multiple dimensions simultaneously. Then the interrogation gets underway and Kahora completely cuts out the outdoors. The interrogation is lovely but I thought by cutting out the outdoors he lost a dimension and took the story at this point to a shallower end. I also think this was a missed opportunity to create extra tension and drama by having what’s happening outdoors as a counterpoint.
After the interrogation is over, the story enters the home straight. I found the finale disappointing. It looked programmed and artificial. The long exposition and the following interrogation scene created something epic and I felt Kandle had to undergo a meltdown at the end. But he emerges just alright. I thought this was playing it safe. I thought it killed that epic feeling I was getting just as the interrogation scene was coming to a close. I also thought Kandle’s crying stunt and explanation of why he was cocking up as daft and foolish. It just didn’t seem in sync with all the imaginative things that were explored about him in the long exposition. Kandle looked like a very intelligent man throughout the story and then for just 30 seconds he becomes this daft guy who puts on a cheap crying act which even a seven year old would get bored watching.
But the final paragraph is nice.
The prose is sleek. The sentences are great. There is a futuristic feel to the story (even though the author himself said it shows the 1990’s). But by the third and fourth reading I started to feel the Urban Zoning animal lacked a soul and was perhaps a robot or some form of advanced artificial intelligence. There is something too cold blooded about this story. Something dead. I don’t know exactly what. It’s just a feeling.
This is why I sometimes think Bombay’s Republic will beat it to the ultimate prize because Rotimi’s story has a lot of soul and heart. This is where I also agree with the famous blogger, Ikhide, about Binyavanga’s writing being ‘alive’. Binyavanga probably has an inbuilt ability to make things come alive. Even a fake Nairobi. Urban Zoning feels a bit too clinical.
Forgetting about the animal thing and jumping to another random idea, Urban Zoning is like a Porsche that Kandle is seeing through a big showroom window opposite Nyayo Stadium. He sees a sleek car with beautiful curves. The windshield is reflecting a Nairobi stuffed with cars stuck in traffic, Marabou Stork and a dazed Kandle. But the Porsche has no petrol in it.
The Army of Bloggers
Other bloggers who have reviewed Urban Zoning:
Method to the Madness
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
City of Lions