Since I was already writing on the Caine Prize 2012 shortlist, after reviewing Bombay's Republic I decided to take part in Blogging the Caine Prize. Once a week, a group of bloggers will be blogging about the Caine Prize. This week's story is Billy Kahora's Urban Zoning. I'm a bit late with my review (short stories are meant to be up by Friday) but here it goes. As always my criteria for reading these shortlisted stories are two-fold: if they beat the "stereotypical narrative" and if I enjoyed it.
Urban Zoning is set in Nairobi and is about a young drunk Kenyan man. Yes, this short story centres around an aloholic. It starts with Kandle realising 'he was truly in the Zone'. So the Zone 'was the calm, breathless place he found himself in after drinking for a minimum of three days straight'. Like I said, it's a story about an alcoholic. But Kandle isn't your typical alcoholic. He is a young, working class man in Nairobi, Kenya - who "was not only a master at achieving the Zone, [but] excellent at hiding it. Kandle only liked to stay in the "'Good Zone', where one was allowed all the wishful thinking in one’s miserable life' and not the 'Bad Zone' - the place of all fears, worries, hatreds, and anxieties.
This story isn't only about Kandle being, and staying, in the Zone. Through his walk down Tom Mboya Street, we also learn a bit more about Kandle - he was a philosopher of the Kenyan calender, he had tried to convert his friends to the pleasures of the Zone, he was the fastest Rugby player in high school but hated physical contact, he also got his maid pregnant, and he currently works at Eagle Bank, which he was on the way to after his 72-hour drinking binge. Once at the bank, we find out that Kandle previously took a loan from his company and he has now been called to justify his absence from the bank. By the end of the story, Kandle has managed to outwit his employers and him and a colleague "both laughed from deep within their bellies, that laughter of Kenyan men that comes from a special knowledge. The laughter was a language in itself, used to climb from a national quiet desperation".
If I'm honest, I'm not sure how I felt about the story. In terms of my "stereotypical narrative" criteria, it definitely wasn't. This wasn't a story about a poor, young man living in Nairobi. It was just a young man who worked at a bank, and drank way too much. Did I enjoy it? Honestly, not as much as Bombay's Republic, but it was interesting. What I took out of it was a young man using alcohol to cope with life in general (he replaced sex with alcohol). In this situation it was used to deal with the meeting at the Bank with his employers. On another level, I also saw a young man doing whatever he could (in this case outwitting his employers from a loan he previously took from the bank) to survive in a modern day African city. I prefered it more when Kandle was on the street getting in the Zone and I can't help but feel that someone from Kenya, or more specifically Nairobi, would know more about some of the things in the story than me. So far Bombay's Republic is still my favourite, but I still have three more stories to go. So we'll see.