Reading Bill Kahora’s “Urban Zoning”

By | May 18, 2012

Caine Prize

Caine Prize (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This continues the Caine Prize blogathon. My commentary on Billy Kahora’s ‘Urban Zoning’ is below. Other bloggers’ reviews are at the bottom of the page.

We enter the story as Kandle, the protagonist and anti-hero of sorts, has just managed to put himself into the Zone. One reaches the Zone after having consistently drunk alcohol and deprived oneself of sleep for 72 hours. In the Zone, one can conjure up pleasant images of the past, drown oneself in positive thoughts and feelings, and feel oneself in total control. But there could be danger in Zoning, for coexisting with the Good Zone is the Bad Zone. As we learn, ‘The Bad Zone [is] the place of all fears, worries, hatreds and anxieties.’ One slips from the Good Zone to the Bad Zone when bad thoughts slither in.

The Zone is the underlying context of the story. The reader sees through the alcohol-crazed eyes of Kandle. We not only see what he sees as he roams the street, but we read his past as images and thoughts run through his mind. We learn that he was sexually abused in his high school boarding house, and that his solution to the psychological effects of the abuse was to lose himself in ‘peri-urban pussy’. He moved on to their housemaid whom he, if one took full cognisance of the power relations inherent in such boymaster-housemaid relationship, abused; and then to an older, motherly Kikuyu woman, among others. After a while, the pleasure of casual sex waned, and alcohol became his vice of choice.

We learn, as we read on, that in this particular occassion, putting himself in the Zone is part of Kandle’s preparation for appearing before a panel that was convened to review his case by Eagle Bank, his employers.  The panel is part of a strand of the story that could be read as a sort of generational struggle. Kandle seems to hold people of an older generation in disdain. He sees his father’s face as being ‘ugly as sin’, and the motherly Kikuyu woman whom he beds is also ‘ugly as sin’. He sees his branch manager as ‘old fool’, the branch accountant was ‘subservient’. The only person on the panel we feel Kandle identifies with is a person of his generation, a drinking buddy. He tells an elaborate lie to the panel, and succeeds in pulling off what he considers to be ‘the greatest performance of his young life’.

Later we learn that he seems to be more involved in the lives of his colleagues than we thought he was, but the story only gives us a taste of that involvement. For instance, he seems to have an arrangement with his immediate boss, to whom, we believe, he regularly lends some money – ‘the usual interest applies’.

As you can see, there are a lot of things going on in the story. Although one is willing to let the imagination do the work of supplying some of the details, there is the feeling that there is a lot the reader is missing. Yes, it could be taken on its own as it is (after all it makes the Caine Prize shortlist), but it feels as if we are missing some plot development that would help us make full sense of the character of Kandle. For instance, where does he get the money he lends to his boss? There are hints that he is from a privileged background, which means that he probably has money from his parents, but that does not come to the fore in the story. Also, his relationship with the immediate boss is very important to the understanding of his character and his dealings in the bank, but it is not fully realised. The dexterity with which the story is written, the well-roundedness of it, makes me wonder whether I am the one missing something – whether I am just unable to get it the way I should.

Even though the story reads as if it has too many issues, too many strands, that the execution does not seem to do the material full justice, I really like the language and pacing. The writing is deliberate, the pacing consistent. I will definitely look around for more stories by the author.

The Caine Prize shortlisted stories:

Other bloggers on “Urban Zoning”

Enhanced by Zemanta