Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Not to be churlish, but some significant reservations about story in current New Yorker
I don't want to be churlish about this but what about Petina Gappah's story A Short History of Zaka the Zulu makes it major- magazine publisher other than the fact that it's set in Central Africa? If this story were set at, say, an American boarding school circa 1980 it would seem trite and conventional, right? Everyone in the school (this story, like several other narratives of youth such as the Virgin Suicides, is written in the rare 1st-person plural, which gives a sense of universal truth and concurrence, all share the same perceptions and memories) dislikes the martinet senior proctor the eponymous Zaka and are surprised to learn in adulthood that he was charged with the murder of one of their classmates - and then, after several pages describing Zaka's intellectual prowess and several schoolboy shananigans, all pretty innocent by today's standards at least, we see Zaka in great servitude toward a less pre-possessing student - and then the narrator(s) recont meeting Zaka in the years after graduation, he's pretty much an apparition, and then the murder - and the facts behind the murder (I won't give it away, though I suspect you can figure it out or guess) clumsily recounted by a classmate years later at a reunion. OK, so the setting is what makes the story - I can grant that - we see relatively little African lit in American publications and even less in this kind of setting: a prestigious boarding school in what appears to be Uganda, a prep school for the boys who will become the nation's elite. Of course one of the many delights in reading is the possibility of experience a life far different from our own - and making sense of the what we share with other times and places, and what we don't. What would have made this story more powerful for me would have been some unique insight about this boarding school: there's not a moment of reflection about the political life in the country, the sense of privilege that the boys have, where they came from, where they are headed. The very familiarity of the setting and the behaviors may be the whole point of the story, but it leaves me thinking there's too much unsaid.