This is the second of five reviews for short stories on the shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This week’s story is “Urban Zoning” by Billy Kahora (Kenya), and you can read the story here (.pdf). At the bottom of the post, I’ll be adding reviews from other bloggers.
It took me quite a while to get into reading Billy Kahora’s shortlisted piece, the writing seemed jumbled and disoriented, but that is what it’s supposed to be. The first portion follows the central character, Kandle, as he navigates the Zone – a state of mind described as “the calm, breathless place he found himself in after drinking for a minimum of three days straight.” It’s a place that really unhinges you, and it’s a place that has taken a number of his friends; one had nearly bled to death, one died in a car accident, another became suicidal.
The Zone is like a symbol of the damage that Kandle has endured and doled out, and is a precarious place to be. To me, the writing reflects this. The writing about the Zone changes speed quickly, alters between topics, and goes between the present, out on Tom Mboya Street and Harambee Avenue, and the past, in boarding school and back home. In one flashback, the reader learns of an incident of sexual abuse that exacerbated Kandle’s disdain for physical contact. His hatred for contact led to him giving up rugby and moving on to a different stage of life. But, “same with life and the street, in the city – you needed to be natural with those close to you.” Kandle gave up on rugby since his hatred for contact wouldn’t allow him to do well, but he couldn’t give up on life, where he faced the same problem.
From this revelation, the story moves forwards to Kandle’s arrival at Eagle Bank, where he works, or worked. After a recent spell of absenteeism and being indebted to the accountant for a loan, Kandle is met by unamused employees as they lead him to a meeting with executives and department representatives to assess his performance. Presumably still in the Zone, Kandle sits down and listens to manger after manager explain the reasons for his behavior and express sympathy or judgement for him. In the end, Kandle expertly manipulates his superiors with tears and stories that convince them to allow him to keep his job. Beyond this, he is able to take a longer leave of absence and even keep the loan. On top of it all, the branch accountant asks Kandle for a loan, and even offers a blank check as repayment. Kandle navigates the meeting as well as he navigates the Zone.
The story is, at its heart, about how much Kandle changed. In the meeting, all of the bank’s employees reference how Kandle was a smart and determined worker who never missed a day. In the story, however, the only Kandle we really know is one who is a manipulative, womanizing, uncaring, alcoholic thief. He has crashed down into a different world than he was intended, he has come of age in an unconventional way, epitomizing the failure to achieve. And yet, in the final scene, he and the accountant exchange a special kind of laughter, recognizing Kandle’s success in spite of his detractors. Kandle, continuing his downward spiral in society, navigates the bank like he navigated the Zone, and like he navigates Nairobi.