Reviewed by Stephen Derwent Partington
Tuesday, May 16, 2012.
I enjoyed the first two-thirds of this story by the Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde (main picture), which recounts the experiences during the second world war of a character nicknamed ‘Bombay’. While it is frequently repeated throughout the story that this is the ‘forgotten frontier’ and that the army of colonial soldiers in Burma and elsewhere in the Far East are the ‘forgotten army’, I’m not entirely sure that this is fully the case any more.
By which, I mean: while the efforts of recruits from Africa – West and East – remained unsung for many years, a new genre seems to be swiftly-and-voluminously emerging of excellent literature on the Burma campaign. Memoirs have appeared, as have fictionalized reworkings such as the fine novel Burma Boy by Biyi Bandele, which famously features the young soldier, ‘Ali Banana’, a similarly nicknamed character. In his book, Bandele refers to the Burma campaign as the war’s ‘least documented and most brutal theatre’, although it seems now to be gaining some important documentation as the (undeniably necessary) bandwagon becomes increasingly loaded.
Burma Boy is presently being read by my young daughter, in part because my family has a two-sidedness that makes our readings of such accounts fascinatingly fraught. The grandfather on my side was an officer in the Royal Air Force, based at times in that Ceylon (now Sri Lanka, of course) where the Bombay of Babatunde’s story receives some of his pre-theatre training; the grandfather on my wife’s side was Kenya’s first ‘African’ head of the armed forces, a Burma veteran, and a friend of Idi Amin who was implicated in a similar coup attempt in the early days of post-independence Kenya – a rumoured coup attempt that saw him dismissed by Kenyatta.
An awareness of the Burma campaign is reasonably easily observed around Kenya; people seem to know what happened in and from Kenya during world war two, and I suspect that the same is true within other of those countries (notably, Nigeria) from which soldiers were taken. Perhaps it’s rather the case that much of, say, the UK, where the Caine Prize is based, is ignorant of colonial troop involvement in the Burma campaign, but then again British schoolchildren tend to grow up ignorant of anything to do with the history of imperial abuses. My concern might be, then, that of Ikhide Ikheloa and other such eminent critics of Caine Prize stories, who has written that perhaps such texts seem more produced for a British-based award, rather than stemming from and aiming for ‘our own’ (a tricky concept, I own). Ikheloa possibly has a point, however, not necessarily as a criticism of the Caine Prize as such, but as a concern with regard to that self-policing that might be causing some younger Anglophone writers to please the judges, as it were. Luckily, of course, the Caine Prize judges are increasingly diverse and, it would seem, increasingly aware of such dangers. But it needs stating: in Africa, we’re not as ignorant of the Burma campaign as some might suggest.
Babatunde certainly seems to know how the Burma campaign is spoken about by veterans in Kenya and other African countries: as an appallingly trying struggle, but also as a window onto the world of white colonial frailty. Speak to anyone in the African countries from which Burma soldiers were drawn, and you will hear that the weaknesses of those starched colonial officers who at home seemed so commanding, were plainly revealed, and that the African soldiery returned with a knowledge that independence at home was possible as a consequence.
Bombay frequently contrasts the British officers in Burma (some of whom go mad with fear) with the superficially calm colonial District Officer from his home town, and concludes that the latter’s easy air of power is nothing but a front enabled by the visual pomp of superiority: the silly uniform, the neat grooming, and so on.
It is the first two thirds of ‘Bombay’s Republic’ that interested me. With little dramatic language, Babatunde tells a dramatic story, and this well, keeping me reading with enthusiasm in a way that war narratives often don’t, I’m afraid. And in order to convey Bombay’s sense of wonder at the novelty of what he’s learning, Babatunde employs a simple but effective device of ending each section of the narrative with a variation on this refrain, ‘[such and such] was something he had not thought was possible’. As such, the Burma campaign becomes a series of miniature rites-of-passage for Bombay, who comes across as an innocent abroad, as a naïve – but not a weak ‘naïve’; rather as a character who has been kept in blissful ignorance by colonial authorities back home with regard to the flimsiness of British power.
Babatunde is thus the stock metonymic character whose
experiences are really those of the oppressed African nation during colonialism, although the allegory at this point is relatively light, of which more later. Along the way, Bombay comes not only to understand the weakness (physical and psychological) of the British, but also comes to understand how the wider world (from Britain to Japan) stereotypes Africans – as ‘cannibals’, as people with ‘tails’, as people who can ‘resurrect’ after being killed. It is tempting to say that there is little new in this, in Babatunde’s revelations (which are sometimes as stock-stereotypical as the racist stereotypes that he rightly ridicules) regarding the (mis)representation of Africa, and yet what is an importantly mitigating factor for this apparent lack of originality is that he plausibly sets his short story at the very moment and place in history when a soldier such as Bombay might really have begun to be able to notice these fault-lines, these chinks in the colonial armour: in second world war Burma. There is a convincingness of ‘period’, as it were.
However, despite the praise, I have some small concerns. Firstly, yes, those near-cliches are there. Secondly, despite devices such as the validly functional refrain, other stylisms are extremely labored, halting my reading and causing me to gently groan. For instance,
there is a gratuitous – a rather too heavily obvious – direct reference to H. Rider Haggard as the bad-boy of colonialist fiction and an equally gratuitous, explicit reference to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. More than anything, these clumsy references feel almost as patronizing to the African reader (on an aesthetic level) as, say, Rider’s own dire and racist fiction.
Another concern is the heavy ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ style of the narrative. ‘Bombay’s Republic’ lacks the ‘showing’ that I feel it’s possible to praise in other of the shortlisted stories. While this ‘telling’ is apparent on numerous occasions throughout ‘Bombay’s
Republic’, one very trifling example might suffice for illustration. When Bombay reveals that the situation in Burma was ‘kill or bekilled’, Babatunde’s authorial voice seems to powerfully intrude, and the war is compared to a ‘kindergarten’. Now, while you and I
probably agree on the awfulness of war, and while we might nod when we hear the suggestion that Burma was like a kindergarten, I want, rather, contemporary fiction to present me with a situation so that I can instead make my own mind up. These authorial intrusions seemed to guide me too much, and again to slightly patronize me as a reader, even though Babatunde’s politics and conscience seem sound, insofar as I often agree with his (overly-stated) views.
Finally, in its last pages, ‘Bombay’s Republic’ moves into the post-war period, up towards the present day, ending rather conventionally with Bombay’s death and obituary. It is this part of the story that saw me less enthralled, and almost disappointed after a fine start. For in the last few pages, the mode of narration abruptly changes, and proceeds to tell the life of Bombay allegorically – indeed, as a very rigid national allegory. While allegory can be a powerful device when effectively used, and while vast numbers of postcolonial novels and short stories have employed it thrillingly, there’s no doubt that all this has been done before, with few differences, in the 1960s and 1970s. The repetition of this narrative mode in a young, contemporary piece seems to sadly lend a certain credence to the notorious utterance of the otherwise excellent Marxist, Frederic Jameson, that all postcolonial texts are in effect national allegories; Jameson’s utterance reductively patronized African literature by implying that we can write nothing other than such texts, and so falling derivatively into the trap again seems sad, and a slightly boring form of arrested development. Further, allegory is again such a didactic literature, tying the national story splint-like to a character’s personal story, enabling no really creative reading beyond that dictated by the author – in effect, all readings of allegories are decodings rather than productively creative interpretations, and reduce the reader to the position of the writer’s obedient servant. This is not necessarily a fault of Babatunde, whose work I greatly look forward to reading in the future (although I will sound patronizing by implying that his time is ‘not yet’), but rather is a fault of the mode he has opted for in this last section, in which Bombay becomes a self-proclaimed president of his own fiefdom, a self-declared commander-in-chief inhabiting an old prison-house (a slightly laboured symbolism, I felt), etc., etc. The didactic (satirical) allegory was a vital experimental mode during times of past postcolonial struggle, and yet, despite its historical validity as a form, it possibly failed then to achieve the political effects it desired – and it seems out of place in contemporary Africa, where we still have great, but very different, struggles.
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. And if Babatunde can develop the skills that he demonstrates in this first section in his later fiction (while toning down the ‘telling’), then I’ll be buying all of his books, enthusiastically.
Stephen Derwent Partington is a teacher, poet and writer, based in Kenya. How to Euthanise a Cactus, Stephen's keenly-awaited new book of Kenyan poems, is now easily available and you can buy it online.