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.)
And now, the floor is yours.