The Week in Books: Africa's stories span comedy and tragedy – and every stage in between


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The Independent Culture

History, wrote Edward Gibbon as he wearily surveyed the decline and fall of the Roman empire, "is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind".

Fiction can often adopt a more balanced – if not always rosier – view of the human condition. But what if fiction from a particular place becomes associated purely with those misdeeds and mischances - even though that place embraces a billion souls, hundreds of languages and almost every kind of culture that our species has devised?

The question arose again as result of this year's Caine Prize for African Writing, awarded (for the 13th time) under the fan-vault of the Divinity School at the Bodleian Library in Oxford on Monday evening. Bernardine Evaristo, the poet and novelist who chaired the judges, spoke out against the stereotypical misery that, in her opinion, defines too much fiction from and about Africa, with its over-familiar motifs of famine, poverty, epidemic, civil war and refugees. It's as if, she argued, modern European fiction was expected to deal exclusively with the Gulag, the Holocaust and dictatorship. Well, much of it has – but I absolutely take the point.

Since the start of the millennium the Caine Prize – awarded for short stories - has grown in scope and clout. Its roster of winners and shortlistees has given a decisive early-career platform to writers such as Helon Habila, Chimamanda Adichie, Leila Aboulela, Uwem Akpan, Laila Lalami and EC Osundo. Ben Okri, the prize's vice-president and himself a short-story writer of distinction with the collections Incidents at the Shrine and Stars of the New Curfew, made an impassioned defence of the compact form not as a prelude or test-track for the full-length novel but "the exalted form", the "essence" of fiction, and "the seed that populates the forest" of all storytelling.

So which seed flowered this year? The winning story came from Nigerian fiction-writer, playwright and poet Rotimi Babatunde. In a deadpan, ironic voice, "Bombay's Republic" tells a sly historical fable about a Nigerian soldier who serves in Burma with the British army during the Second World War. His sense of reality, and of authority, transformed by the eye-opening upheavals of war, he returns home to found his own one-man state in the local jailhouse: a pocket Ruritania with a 792-page constitution, whose miniature grandiosity subverts imperialist and nationalist delusions alike.

Social satire, and the barbed comedy of manners, has infused much of the best Nigerian fiction, from Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka onwards. But satire and suffering can effectively intertwine: Adichie's Orange Prize-winning Half of a Yellow Sun dwells almost as much on the pitfalls and puzzles of culture and class in Nigeria as on the encroaching agonies of the Biafran war. As Evaristo suggests, and as the Caine shortlist amply bears out, all manner of forms can address the predicament of a nation or a continent: comedy, fantasy, parable, romance or noir. You will find the entire eclectic shortlist, along with 10 tales from the 2012 Caine Prize workshops in South Africa, in African Violet and other stories, published in the UK by New Internationalist.

In the end no critic, no jury, can ever tell a gifted author how or what to write. Talent scoffs at every arbiter. Take Congo – and the inconceivably terrible war in the region that claimed perhaps five million lives in the decade after 1998, and still takes its toll. Here, if anywhere, we might expect a sombre epic overflowing with grief, anguish and calamity to come out of Africa – a Life and Fate or War and Peace for our age. Yet the finest novelist of Congolese origin I know is a comedian: the droll, mischievous and exuberant Alain Mabanckou, author of Broken Glass and African Psycho, who (by the way) will be in this country next week as writer in residence at the "Room for London" boat on the South Bank. In Africa, as in Europe, we may laugh at those crimes, follies and misfortunes as well as weep over them – or even, thanks to the strange alchemy of fiction, do both at once.

JKR and the puzzling plain cover

Little, Brown has released the cover of JK Rowling's first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy. Designed by Mario J Pulice, the bare red-yellow jacket carries a drawing of a ticked ballot paper that hints at the electoral shenanigans within - but little more. Only a mass bestseller could get away with such a plain wrap. Or else an inspired maverick – such as Timothy Mo, whose Pure outdid the White Album-era Beatles with its snowy monochrome design. Inside, Pure explodes with colour and vitality. Let's hope that JKR can do a fraction as well.

The star author on Barclays' board

In books such as Winner Takes All (reviewed here last week), the superstar economist and former banker Dambisa Moyo doesn't stint in her criticism of Western capitalism. Thanks to the public profile her writing secured, the Zambian-born high-flyer sits on company boards. Since 2010, after the LIBOR rate-fixing occurred, Dr Moyo has served as a non-executive director of – yes, Barclays plc. She belongs to the wounded bank's Risk and Citizenship committees. The directors' duties at Barclays include oversight of a system of "risk management and internal control", to enable business to be done without "reputational damage". "Non-executive" she may be, but in 2011 Dr Moyo received fees of £105,000 for a supervisory role at a bank now best known for what the PM calls "spivvy and probably illegal" activity. What will this scourge of fat cats do to repair the damage?