This post is part of a series initiated by Aaron Bady of Zunguzungu in which various bloggers will write about the five short stories nominated for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing. For more information, see my introductory post.
I think Aaron is right to say that NoViolet Bulawayo's "Hitting Budapest" fits into a genre of African writing (fiction and memoir): "the story of children left behind by their society, either running wild in perverse and monstrous ways (as in the child soldier narrative, in particular) or festering in horrible ignorance and social pathology" -- and genre is a pretty good word for it, because such stories vary considerably in quality and effect while displaying some common features. It's a genre the Caine Prize is particularly welcoming toward, as I noted in my review of the anniversary anthology of Caine winners. The paragraph about "Jungfrau" in that review applies pretty equally to "Hitting Budapest", though I think "Hitting Budapest" has more strengths.
Some of the other bloggers writing about "Hitting Budapest" have noted that it isn't much of an actual story -- it's a narrative of a group of impoverished, hungry kids walking from one part of a city to another, encountering the stereotypical Well Intentioned But Clueless White Woman, having some other encounters, dreaming about a better life for themselves, and then walking home. Stuff happens (they see a dead body hanging from a tree, for instance), but what happens isn't consequential for them. It's almost a "quiet epiphany" story, except the epiphany is displaced -- the readers are the ones who are, it seems, supposed to have an epiphany: the lives these children live are oppressive, unjust, painful, etc. It's the basic epiphany of social realism, or what gets called "poverty porn". Turn "How to Write about Africa" into a checklist and start ticking one item after another.
The problem for me with "Hitting Budapest" is the same as I had with a lot of the previous Caine Prize winners: not that these stories are bad, but that they don't offer us much more than the familiar tropes. I think "Hitting Budapest" is actually better than some of the past winning stories, because it has a strong voice that captures the children's perspectives in this terrible environment, and I particularly like the effect of the wealthier section of the city being known as "Budapest" and the impoverished section where the children live being "Paradise". The playfulness and bitter irony of naming is one of the story's real strengths, and it accomplishes a definite unsettling of expectations when early in the story we haven't quite figured out yet that Budapest is not referring to the city in Hungary. All of the children's words for places are then called into question, and so Darling's dreams of escape and happiness in "America" are poignant. The world shrinks into the children's frame of reference. (Little do the children know, they could write a bestseller!)
But is this enough? Get rid of the interesting effect produced by the naming, and we still have a story that doesn't add up to much, because the setting is sketchy, the characters are vague (we know them best through their interesting names), and what emotion the story produces is not created through the specificity of the situation but through our recognition that these are not isolated lives; that, in fact, many children in the world live just as badly or worse.
It is possible to write excellent stories of quiet epiphany -- some of the most renowned writers of short stories have done it. But there are all sorts of other ways to write stories, many of them much more likely to be affecting and effective. Young and inexperienced writers tend to be drawn to the quiet epiphany mode for various reasons, one being that it feels sensitive, it feels artistic. And it is, when it works. But when it doesn't work, it's empty and banal; worse, when applied to genuine human misery, it risks trivializing.
The consistency of voice in "Hitting Budapest", the ironic humor, the skill with children's point of view -- these are all strengths of the story. But they are linked to its limitations. Why, for instance, tell such a story from a child's point of view? It's an easy way to grab the reader's sympathy -- e.g., the "her grandfather made her pregnant" detail that Aaron discusses -- but it prevents there being any space for analysis or history in the story. We can't understand the forces at play in their lives, or the history of those forces, because children don't. It's possible for a writer to add clues and details to give the alert reader an impression of worlds beyond the child's consciousness, and that's a really powerful narrative strategy, but this story is too short and too vague to achieve that. Its virtues, then, seem to me wasted.
For other takes on "Hitting Budapest", see the links at the end of Aaron's post.