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It’s time to start our second discussion; this time, we’re focusing on “Bombay’s Republic” by Rotimi Babatunde, which you can read here. As winner of the Caine Prize, there’s been a substantial amount of commentary on this story, not least because Aaron Bady of The New Inquiry organised a mass blogging of the shortlist earlier in the year. As with last time, I won’t pretend to have covered everything here.
Aishwarya Subramanian saw “Bombay’s Republic” as ‘a story about stories and how they are told, and the relationship between stories and the world’. Stories and storytelling were recurring themes in the commentary: Ndinda described Babatunde’s tale as ‘a story that simply ridicules stories of war.’ Peter Day noted that ‘Bombay begins the story as a reader like us, practically anonymous, nameless, pulled from the “droves” of unknown men…[and] becomes the writer, that perverse egomaniacal hermit.’
The Oncoming Hope felt that Bombay’s period as a ‘writer’ came to a bad end: ‘Unfortunately for Bombay, he had the opportunity to create his own story, but went home instead and trapped himself in delusions’. In contrast, Matthew Cheney considered that Bombay ‘liberates himself through stories, and the stories become true, and he becomes a story.’
Aaron Bady’s own response examined how truth in the story is malleable, and can be exploited: ‘the entire course of [Bombay’s] experience in Burma is marked by the repeated discovery not of what the world really is like, but of the extent to which people will believe totally crazy things. For City of Lions, “Bombay’s Republic” parodies ‘the idea that storytelling is a kind of heroic calling. And the destabilizing shifts in style are part of that, because they play against the individualistic notion of author-as-brand.’
Soulfool reflected on the story’s theme of possibility:
Possibilities peddle themselves with sour faces and sharp swords of obloquy. They demand that something must be done with them. And yet what is it that one is to do with possibility? What is one to do with the obscenity of knowledge? Bombay is obnoxious to the possibilities of possibility.
Richard M. Oduor explored the representational aspects of the story:
Bombay’s Republic is a metonym for white-black relations during the World War, mapped on the dichotomy of good and evil, civilized and savage, colonizer and colonized. It should be celebrated by Africans as a great lamp post lighting the path for continued de-authorization of colonialist literature. Dotted with unending tints of dark humour, Bombay’s Republic forces us to see ourselves as we need to see us, not otherwise.
Olumide Abimbola also touched on this:
Even though he does not repeat the Burma returnee cliché Bombay is still recognisable. He is a Big Man who spins wealth out of political power, and whose political sovereignty and legitimacy is fully acknowledged only by himself. In that sense, one can read Bombay’s inhabitation of a jailhouse as a metaphor for the alienation that high political office sometimes imposes on office holders, especially those whose legitimacy is questionable.
Stephen Derwent Partington felt that “Bombay’s Republic” tailed off in its final third:
And so, a story with great start, and which performs an important recuperation (for the western reader) of a Burmese campaign that s/he might not be fully aware of. If this section could somehow have been maintained without the awkward later shift into hard-and-fast, uncompromising allegory, this would have been, for me, a brilliant story rather than a very good one.
(But see also his comment on Bady’s post.)
I’ll also highlight positive views from Adjoa Ofoe; Saratu; Bookshy; Jayaprakash; Klara du Plessis; Mel u; Alan Bowden; Jeffrey Z.; Nana Freuda-Agyeman; and (positive with reservations) Ikhide.
And now, the floor is yours.
5th August 2012 at 12:56 pm
What really struck me about this story was its lightness: despite the subject matter of conflict and mental health, it felt full of wonder and surprise and I found myself laughing a lot. I really enjoyed the curiosity of Bombay, and the peculiarly neutralising effect created in the juxtaposition of discovery and the horror of what is subsequently understood to be possible.
I liked Bombay’s shift from subservience to dominance, though I don’t think I find it entirely convincing. I wonder if this is a reflection of his alienation – a suggestion, perhaps, that there must be leadership, even if there is only one person to govern?
5th August 2012 at 9:16 pm
Thanks so much for gathering together all these responses on the story, David. In particular I enjoyed Aaron Brady’s comprehensive thoughts on both the story and the Caine Prize in general. I’ve read very little African writing – not even Things Fall Apart – so I found all this information on the context of African writing really useful.
The first thing that struck me positively about the story was its voice, full of dark humour and also a subversion of a fairytale/origin myth storytelling voice. It was also quickly apparent that the overally quality of the writing is excellent, including some really vivid imagery (can’t quite get the tiger leeches out of my mind!).
I thought Bombay’s life lessons were brilliantly depicted. I enjoyed watching Babatunde do this with the character. I especially liked that we even see him learn the lesson that not all men learn the lessons of the world the way he does (when the new captain is made ill by confronting the horror of war). I also loved his retort to the officer that if the enemy think black men can rise from the dead, they are ‘like Jesus Christ, your saviour.’ This was a startling moment where I felt it began to seem inevitable that Bombay would do something incredible after the war – and succeed in making it credible.
As others have commented, the story makes interesting use of the power of names (Bombay’s own name; his use of the white officer’s first name Charles) and of storytelling and asserting one’s own ‘truth’ (Bombay’s fantastical lies and when he declares himself ‘president’, a ‘spotted leopard’, Lord of All Flora and Fauna, etc), which seems especially relevant when I read Brady’s commentary on the use of the Forgotten War and so on in African literary culture and history.
5th August 2012 at 9:31 pm
An interesting story with, as others have commented, lots of dark humour and vivid imagery. (I’ve been thinking about tiger leech fangs all day ….) I suspect I read the story far too quickly to appreciate the underlying subtleties and a second reading would allow me to make more insightful comment. (Unfortunately with house guests arriving tomorrow, I can’t see a second reading in the near future.)
I side firmly with Stephen Derwent Partington’s – the final section with its descent into pantomine spoiled the whole.
6th August 2012 at 5:41 pm
I’m actually beginning to think that the final section makes the story, or at least adds a vital dimension to it. I take Stephen Derwent Partington’s point that the ending dictates its own interpretation, but I found the juxtaposition of the story’s realist and parodic sections very effective.
Eva, I like your point about the story’s ‘subversion of a fairytale/origin myth storytelling voice’ – I think that speaks to what Babatunde is doing by mixing prose styles.
6th August 2012 at 6:22 pm
Thanks, David. I’m with you on the ending, too – it worked for me. I clicked through to read Stephen Derwent Partington’s full piece this evening after reading your comment above. I still think the ending is strong but thought there were some interesting points made against it – especially the suggestion it becomes ‘overly-stated’, as SDP notes. The only sentence that felt like a false note to me in the story is one where this was the problem.
This was the final line of the penultimate paragraph, where the narrator says: “No one argued with the claim since it was only natural for a person to love himself without reservations”. On my first read, it took away from the comic punch of the rest of paragraph by over-explaining somewhat (at least I think so – open to correction on this!).
But I wonder whether the high quality of Babatunde’s writing is such that when the balance tips from the realist aspects that dominate the first two thirds of the story to the more startling, allegorical aspects of the final third, readers more invested in the well-written realism could feel disappointed with the story, perhaps?
On another note: I’ve just noticed I’ve misspelled Aaron Bady’s name above. Apologies to Aaron if he reads this!
And, Lizzy: I’m glad I’m not the only one preoccupied by the tiger leeches!