I came across a post by Aaron Bady( @Zunguzungu), calling on bloggers to take part in this year’s Caine Prize conversation, mostly by reviewing the stories. He wrote an introductory post that I think you will find very helpful. This week, we review one of the stories, Rotimi Babatunde’s Bombay’s Republic
Bombay’s Republic by Rotimi Babatunde is a story that simply ridicules stories of war. I wouldn’t call it a story of “the faceless and nameless characters forever entombed in a book of fiction that will never be written”, as has been implied by other writers of war before Babatunde. He uses the obvious road to take you somewhere. Not where you are used to, just elsewhere. He sneakily ridicules the obsession with ‘being forgotten’, and the overridden destitution of post-colonial Africa. In a way, it reminds me of how much we bask in the anguish that might or might not have been caused by otherness as if we were enjoying it. We refuse to move on!
The protagonist, whose delusion of grandeur is so elevated that he likens himself to a bomb, giving himself an eruptible name, Bombay, is very much a distant main character to me. This story is told by a third person voice through the eyes of Bombay, but he feels like an outsider and the voice feels more present than he is. While he is in the jungle, even after his decorations and medals, he never once feels like he belongs there. There is a certain distance between Bombay and the war; and it isn’t the usual assumption that this wasn’t his war. This however isn’t an anti-incentive to the success of the story. The story is told, distantly but successfully. Possibly intentionally.
I could get into a traditional analysis of the story, but most of these things have been covered by the other reviewers already on links I have provided at the end of my two cents. I am very much interested in Bombay’s madness. After the war, where Bombay has learned that everything he thought impossible is actually possible, where boxes have been opened and he now knows what’s inside them, where he has nothing to look forward to with the war gone, no ‘kindergarten certainty to kill or be killed’. Left with nothing else, and possibly desperate, he feigns madness and captivity, serving a jail term in his republic where he is the ruler and the ruled. The everything. His madness becomes his companion. However, his transition from the naïve recruit to a ludicrous war veteran is sudden and unbelievable! Babatunde plays me here. The last part of the story leaves me wondering, what just happened. It feels like both Babatunde and his main character are enjoying a private joke, leaving out the reader. Maybe earlier foreshadows of growing delusion can provide a smooth transition? He admires the idea of the superior officer ordering people around, bringing together a Babel into a single martial unit. Do notice the kind of questions he asks as his delusions start to germinate. It sure does look like he is planning something, like there is so much more that goes on in his head than we are aware of.
You mean… they believe it is possible we rise up to continue fighting them after we are killed, he asked.
Yes, the officer replied, chuckling.
Every one of us?
Just like Lazarus?
And like Jesus Christ, your saviour? “
But then, to what end? How helpful is Bombay as a main character who is a veteran of the war? He becomes a pure mockery. Unlike the cliché’ veterans scarred and toughened by war, he laughs at your stories and your rumours- Africans that have a tail, Africans that do not die, the undaunted African- and he decides to turn them into a playful madness. The war does not do this to Bombay. He does it to himself. He just wants a plaything. And he has it in his madness.
Regarding Babatunde’s prowess as a story teller, I think he does a pretty good job keeping the reader glued. I however had an issue with the long sentences. I am a selfish reader. I hoard sentences in my mind, and the length of Babatunde’s sentences gave me a run. I must also mention how much I felt that he repeated ideas, over-making his point. Stop it already. We get it! But then I remembered that it is a story on refusing to move on, willingly stagnating. Then I lauded Babatunde!
So I ask what I think Babatunde might have indirectly asked in Bombay’s republic. This wanting to be ‘celebrated’, not to be forgotten, behaving like the world owes us everything…. Why? What do the veterans want? To be written about in history books? A state burial? It does remind me of how much my grandfather and his fellow war veterans were fond of telling exaggerated Burma stories, just so they can be called ‘the one who went to Burma’. It becomes more of an ego thing. I therefore do not feel sorry for Bombay, which I think is what Babatunde wants in the end. The war does not make him mad, and his madness is as unimportant as the war, where winning isn’t the end result.
The story is grave, but told lightly. Babatunde actually employs a certain unintended humour that I liked. I cannot stop giggling at this one: ” from the affliction called sanitary inspectors, through the laying of the railway tracks by navvies who likewise succeeded in laying pregnancies in the bellies of several lovestruck girls.” Babatunde’s description of the war does not scare me. It doesn’t leave me with the fear of the jungle, dying men, others living in deplorable condition, fear of ambush. Babatunde thus relieves us from the typical graveness of an over-told African story.
I could have made you coffee, but there are more observations by other writers waiting for you. You can read them here
- Method to the Madness
- The Oncoming Hope
- Stephen Derwent Partington
- Backslash Scott
- The Mumpsimus
- To Make Poesis