Wednesday, August 5, 2015

I Am Lion (Mambo Banda II)

Independent and self-publishing can easily encompass a category of "outsider literature," akin to outsider art and music in that it does not follow the usual rules. Mambo Banda II's magical realist allegorical political thriller I Am Lion qualifies as outsider literature in that sense, although it is probably also drawing on African narrative traditions that may only seem unusual from a different cultural perspective.

The outsider feeling of the text is magnified, though, because of its rough-hewn quality. Not to put too fine a point on it, the book could use a copy-editor! A professional editor would catch the misspellings, tidy up the frequent run-on sentences, and eliminate some worse problems (like a couple of patches of formatting instructions that somehow got dumped into the narrative on pages 151 and 189).

There can be a question, of course, as to when persistent "errors" become part of a style. Controversy formed around the novels of the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola (1920-1997) - was his "broken English" a reinforcement of Western stereotypes about uneducated Africans, or was it merely vernacular? (The debate has swung in favor of the second viewpoint.) Undoubtedly Mambo Banda's prose does reflect local African uses of English which should not be entirely edited away in favor of a smoother and more banal product. For example, this run-on sentence is fairly effective because it conveys a sense of motion:

Aaron tried the elevator but it was out of service, he used the stairs, slowly he ascended up the unforgiving stairs.

But I do think that the text could be tweaked in unobtrusive ways that would encourage more readers to engage with it.

And what is it exactly that they will be engaging with? The story opens with a homeless man named Lion who does not remember his past. The context is an unspecified African geography (Portuguese and Arabic are spoken as well as English) where Pathos City and Solemn Island are in sight of each other, but jurisdictionally separate albeit desperately tangled. Lion will find himself involved in a Machiavellian fever-dream of revolution, terror, bureaucracy, assassination, political marriage, street gang activity, and boring conference presentations, and the deeper in he goes the more he will recover of the lost parts of his own journey.

Imagination is not lacking here, and neither is narrative drive. Even when the story became dauntingly convoluted or went off on sidetracks (such as a passage with a ghostly guide that seems to have parachuted in from Dickens' A Christmas Carol, or an overly detailed description of a fistfight), I turned pages speedily. I cannot say that I was entirely satisfied at the finish - there were too many nagging loose ends. (Where did you go, Princess Deborah?) But the book was undoubtedly a trip.

So do I recommend I Am Lion? That's a tough call. It's clearly not for everyone. I believe it would benefit not just from the copy-editing I mentioned, but from one further general overhaul to clarify parts of the story that are more confusing and ungrounded than they need to be. Some confusion is atmospheric; too much is trying.

Mambo Banda's vivid descriptive prose is generally a highlight of the reading experience:

The moon cast a fatigued radiance, making it difficult to see anything. It was absolutely silent with the exception of a seething noise in the background, relenting and unending. Different smells filled the air, but one scent dominated, the smell of rotting mangos. Dawn approached and slowly relieved the night of its duty. The darkness began to vanish, slowly revealing the true nature of the place. The seething background sound continued even after the night faded away.

Now, that is imperfect - for one thing, he means "relentless" (or "unrelenting"), not "relenting." But "the smell of rotting mangos" is nicely specific; the notion that, if radiance helps us to see, "fatigued radiance" might prevent us from seeing, is intriguing; and "slowly relieved the night of the duty" is an excellent turn of phrase. These are the opening words of the novel, and they unquestionably got me interested. 

But sometimes when Banda is just trying to push the story forward, the language gets flat-footed:

One fateful morning everything changed; an unpredictable set of events would rip Salim's world apart.

The dialogue, which is the primary way we "know" the characters, lacks differentiation and can be stilted in effect. I found myself able to live with that, but I do think the people in the story, Lion aside, could be fleshed out more fully in ways other than their spoken language. I don't really have mental pictures of them.

So-o-o-o - the book has substance and urgency, but is not (yet) everything it could be. I could recommend a revised and corrected version more confidently. For now, I Am Lion is for the adventurous reader who does not mind carrying a machete into the jungle territory of literature.

I Am Lion

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