Catching Up with the Caine Prize

This is my fourth post for the great 2012 Caine Prize blogathon. (See my first post for some details.)

With 2 stories remaining for our Caine Prize Blogathon of Wonder, I fell behind.

Thus, this post will be about the last two stories, "La Salle de Départ" by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo and "Hunter Emmanuel" by Constance Myburgh.

Both are solid stories with their own virtues and are, much to the jurors' credit, utterly different from each other.

"La Salle de Départ" tells the tale of a sister who has remained at home while her brother was sent to school in America; he returns home for a visit having become relatively successful in the States, engaged to an Egyptian woman who is a liberal Muslim and a scholar, and unable to relate to his own family anymore. It's true, in this story, that you can't go home again. The cultural and economic divides are nicely delineated, and this is a generally well-written story, carefully structured and balanced, a story with clear themes and unresolved tensions and psychological probing and sociological gesturing, a story that, of course, has an unresolved, dying-fall sort of ending. It's what I think of as a safe workshop story — a story that demonstrates plenty of talent and sensitivity and gives everybody around the table something to comment on and admire. It's also the sort of story that flatters its readers: we can feel good about our own sensitivities after reading it, because we have sided with the good character, we have identified the tensions, we have appreciated the dilemmas, we have nodded our head at the seriousness of it all, and we have felt the proper emotions.

And as you can probably tell from my tone, it's not a type of story I have much interest in. It's worth reading, it's even perhaps worth nominating for an award, but I just struggle to muster a lot of enthusiasm for a story that is so determined to be good for me.

"Hunter Emmanuel", on the other hand, is not a story that wants to be good for anybody. It is a deliberately pulpy tale, originally published in Jungle Jim, "a bimonthly, African pulp fiction magazine" or "genre-based writing from all over Africa." The story is certainly pulpy and hardboiled, but not in a nostalgic or posturing way. The genre feels utterly appropriate for the setting and events. Rewriting the story in a different idiom would rob it of all its meaning.

It's a story that begins with a severed leg in a tree. Hunter Emmanuel is not a fairy tale character (which I assumed when I first saw the title), but an out-of-luck former police officer who has become a lumberjack. He finds the leg, and can't help but start an investigation on his own. What he finds surprises him. He's fine at getting to what happened, but he's not very good at understanding other people's motivations and desires.

The world of the story is dark and grimy, but there's a dream-world underneath it all, or at least underneath Hunter Emmanuel's perception of it all. A wonderful lyric passage in the middle of the story begins:
That night Hunter Emmanuel dreamt of corridors and mermaids, of seal women. Trees that stretched on and on, up and up, trunks wider than ten men's arms could reach around. Solid pine. It was no good. He'd spent enough nights similarly to know he couldn't sleep like this.
Unable to sleep, he goes out into the world, dragging his dream-world into it:
He didn't know what ghosts led him back to the forest, steered his hands on the wheel, his feet on the path, off the path. Soon he was walking only on needles, but the same ghosts still swirled around him. It had been blacker than black, when he first arrived. No. It was like the blackness under his fingernails at the end of each week: gritty, composed of many things he didn't understand. But it had voices, this darkness, it spoke, and as Hunter Emmanuel collapsed to his knees, he began to see the lights. They swished past him, he tried to grab at them, but he was always too slow, suspended, too mortal. The lights were yellow, orange, there a red one, and they moved like the wind. Before he knew it he was in darkness and silence again, only the smell of the wet earth, of things changing their nature as they broke down, decomposed, only that sense remained to makrt the fact that he was still alive, a part of the living world, and not some phantom in a dream other than his own.
The movement of the story from the straightforward, somewhat clipped manner that is its norm into this kind of reverie is impressive. What I most like about it is that it isn't an inappropriately poetic lyricism: it isn't so vastly different from the rest of the narrative to be too jarring, and it isn't so careful and studied as to be unbelievable in Hunter Emmanuel's mind. It also fits perfectly within the story's overall portrait of Emmanuel: his dreams distort prosaic reality. He discovers what has caused the lights, and that discovery ties in with his resolution of the mystery of the leg in the tree, but it also ruins the fulsome poetry of his initial perception. The tragedy of Hunter Emmanuel is that the world's mysteries are not as beautiful as the mysteries in his dreams. Perhaps I was right to assume what I did when I saw the title of the story: there's a fairy tale quality to it, but it's mostly in Hunter Emmanuel's head. He's got a bit of Don Quixote to him, a bit of the lost romantic, the dreamer in search of his destiny in a world of brutal realities.

So where does this leave us for the five nominated stories?

It's the strongest slate of nominees that I can remember. Were I a judge for the award, it would be a hard choice between "Bombay's Republic", "Urban Zoning", and "Hunter Emmanuel". In terms of the initial reading experience, I enjoyed "Bombay's Republic" and "Hunter Emmanuel" the most, but I've found that "Urban Zoning" has stuck with me the longest, its images and phrases tugging at the corners of my consciousness. I still don't know exactly what I think about the story, and that's in its favor.

The Caine Prize unavoidably puts its nominees in an unfair position of having to be African Stories first and foremost, but this group seems to survive that pressure more than, certainly, last year's disappointing set of nominees did. These stories don't only face the ordinary scrutiny that Caine Prize nominees do, but also stand as evidence for or against the chair of judges Bernardine Evaristo's comments about her goals for this year's award. Is there diversity of genre and subject matter, of style and approach?

I think it's clear that the Prize is moving in the right direction. Five stories can't be everything. But these five stories do not all seem to come from the same place regardless of the places named, nor do they come from the same writerly place of insistent realism and good moral instruction. There are, as there should be, a few stories here that wouldn't have surprised us as Caine Prize nominees in the past, and there are also, as there should be, a few stories that really do feel like they come from a wider aesthetic than has been the norm in the past. With luck, the attention the Prize brings to these stories will encourage more writers to follow their imaginations wherever they lead, and challenge them to aim for original styles, forms, images, topics, and dreams.

Other bloggers on "La Salle de Départ":
Method to the Madness
Black Balloon
Backslash Scott
Ayodele Olofintuade
Practically Marzipan
City of Lions

Other bloggers on  "Hunter Emmanuel":
The Reading Life
Black Balloon
Backslash Scott

Popular posts from this blog

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

"Stone Animals" by Kelly Link

The Penny Poet of Portsmouth by Katherine Towler

Reflections on Samuel Delany's Dark Reflections

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

"Loot" by Nadine Gordimer

The Snowtown Murders