Sunday Story Society: ‘Bombay’s Republic’ by Rotimi Babatunde

The Sunday Story Society‘s second story is Rotimi Babatunde’s ‘Bombay’s Republic’. These are my thoughts before we discuss it on David Hebblethwaite’s society page.

The subject of Babatunde’s dark, humorous, and cutting story is ‘Colour Sergeant Bombay, the veteran who went off with the recruitment officers to Hitler’s War as a man and came back as a spotted leopard.’ We follow him through the manipulative recruitment of the colonial administration, his training, and service in Burma, before he returns to establish his republic in a hilltop jailhouse.

The order and certainty of the colonial racial straitjacket is all Bombay knows, ‘But the war came and the bombs started falling, shattering things out of their imprisonment in boxes and jumbling them without logic into a protean mishmash. Without warning, everything became possible.’ On active service Bombay experiences the prejudice and suspicion Africans are subject to and which is exploited in Imperial propaganda . A Lieutenant tells him ‘The stories that preceded you to this war said that the Africans are coming and that they eat people. We fuelled these rumours by dropping leaflets on the enemy, warning them that you will not only kill them but you also will happily cook them for supper.’

Yet Bombay also realises that the white man is vulnerable and unstable in a way Colonial government is designed to deny. He likes this possibility very much.

The refrain of expanded possibilities follows ‘That people would imagine he was a cannibal was something he had not thought possible.’

I felt the writing echoed Marquez and Rushdie in its colonial subject matter as well as its realism; their magic being replaced by horror in the unflinching description of fear, death, and mutilation in the Burmese jungle.

‘He was dead but there was no sign that he had been shot. His body had been severally pierced. The spectacle of his entrails spilling out of his excavated stomach and drooling down to his toes could not have been ghastlier.’

The Republic of the story’s title is founded shortly after Bombay returns from the war. Inspired by the vulnerability of his colonial overlords on the battlefield he declares his old jailhouse to be independent and raises a flag. In his republic of one Bombay descends into absurd pomp and circumstance, unsurprisingly winning every Presidential election. I particularly liked the titles Bombay awards himself, especially ‘Lord of All Flora and Fauna’, ‘Sole Discoverer of the Grand Unified Theorem’, and ‘Father of the Internet’. Babatunde uses this to reflect on the corruption independence can bring in its wake, made the more absurd by its focus in a single individual. Bombay rewrites the constitution, recognises any government in power, and demands gifts on his many ‘state visits’. In the end, Bombay takes on the megalomania that was the mark of Empire and which mars the so-called republics of certain African states.

Sunday Story Society: ‘Black Box’ by Jennifer Egan

The Sunday Story Society‘s inaugural story is Jennifer Egan’s Black Box published in the New Yorker. These are my thoughts before we discuss it on David Hebblethwaite’s society page.

As I understand it Black Box was written and published sentence by sentence on Twitter before being posted on the website of the New Yorker. Consequently, no sentence is longer than Twitter’s 140 character maximum. In Egan’s hands this enforced concision renders every line taut and intensely particular.

The goal is to be a lovely, innocuous, evolving surprise.

This is the goal of the ‘black box’ herself, the seductive agent whose impersonal instruction in terrorist infiltration constitutes the story. The voice is entirely detached and mechanical, in the manner of a supposed national security training manual. The agent or ‘beauty’ must cleave to her ‘Designated Male’ using all sorts of feminine wiles, each of which is dehumanised as its effect and execution are anatomized.

Egan manages to maintain the impersonal tone whilst conveying the twists and turns of the beauty’s mission, the fears, hopes, pain, and danger. Of course, this is no use to the agency.

Your pounding heartbeat will not be recorded.

The narrative drive Egan attains in each sentence, often by allusion alone, is wonderful and is combined with unexpectedly poetic moments, all of which are deployed in the instrumental manner of the training manual. The beauty of nature is a useful tool, as is the ‘beauty’ herself, who must contemplate the stars in order to calm herself.

The universe will seem to hang beneath you in its milky glittering mystery.

‘Black Box’ is a brilliant piece of writing, each sentence luminous like the stars our ‘beauty’ uses to navigate. I thoroughly recommend it.