Saturday, 18 June 2011

Blogging The Caine Prize: What Molly Knew

This is the third short story in the Blogging the Caine Prize series I'm participating in with several other bloggers. This week's story, What Molly Knew is by Tim Keegen from South Africa. Of all the stories thus far, this is the best - hopefully the stories will keep getting better. Unlike last week's story, 'Butterfly Dreams' the writing is much tighter and with each sentence comes a development in the story unlike 'Butterfly Dreams' which was so overwritten in several places that it stunted the development of the story, as I've said before.

'What Molly Knew' is mainly set in Goodwood, Cape Town and tells the story of Molly Retief's daughter's murder. Molly's prime suspect is Tommie, the son-in-law, an illegal, half Black half White Mozambican she refuses to recognize as family. Making clear her dislike, she says to the investigating officer: “I hate it when you call him my son-in-law. I never thought of him as part of my family.” His race, migrant status and political connections to the ANC are negative markers of difference for Molly and in marking him in this way, she also reveals the dynamics of race and foreign othering within White South African society. 

The gossip session at the haridressers on Tommie's percieved betrayal to the Portuguese (and by extension the White race) and unsavoury political connections affirm that the stranger is definitely 'not one of us' unlike other Coloured South Africans of the Cape who have insider/outsider status within the Afrikaans-speaking community because of the shared history and language. However, like many other Coloured characters in the (White) Afrikaner world (e.g. Josef Malan in Looking on Darkness by Andre Brink and Michael in JM Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K), Tommie functions as a figure of moral and political censure against privatised, casual racism, an enduring social feature even in the new South Africa.

The story opens with a desire for routine, normalcy - Molly's cat expects to be fed, and she walks around the house in her pinafore over a "shapeless lavender jersey", as she always does when cleaning the house. But that normalcy is interrupted and contaminated. Though it may seem like this day is like any other, it isn't. Sarah, her daughter, is dead.

Rather than deal with the loss of her daughter, Molly finds it apt to try and carry on as though things were normal - despite the glare of the cameras and reporters lurking about and a policeman visiting an overly neat house - everything must be normal. And that includes, Rollo's drunken tirades. 

To a certain extent, I agree with Mumpsimus who criticised this story for being 'nice writing' - where it's easy to identify good and bad. Mumpsimus writes:
Tim Keegan clearly does not like racism or domestic abuse. We, too, do not like racism or domestic abuse, and so we can read the story and feel all the proper emotions. Nasty Rollo! Poor, deluded, weak Molly! Good Sarah! Wronged Tommie!
It's easy to feel sorry for Molly, and also to feel at least a tinge of contempt for her: Stupid woman, sticking with such a man! It's easy to hate Rollo. It's easy to feel anger that Tommie is so badly treated. 
This is true, it is easy to dislike Rollo and Molly and get on a soapbox and preach about racism as I'm doing here in this post, but the meaningfulness of 'easy fiction' depends on how we as readers engage with it. In my view, the niceness of this story invites the reader to look beyond - beyond the things that we're comfortable with, like disliking Rollo and Molly, to see what else the world of the characters tells us. How telling of South African society, is the Reitiefs' desire to preserve the normal or rather illusory normalcy of their world with all it's half-truths, untruths, sad truths and family skeletons? (See AfricasACountry link below) In an eerily measured tone that marks the pace of the Retiefs' life, things seem to happen in slow motion in this story, there are no big action scenes, no climactic emotional/awakening scene. Life continues to roll out in slow motion, just like that real life story (read: country) you've heard one too many times before and you as a listener (read: citizen) don't have the power to stop from recurring.

...If there is one actionable message for the new post-apartheid South Africa, as a whole, apart from that to do with the politics of race, Afrikaner privilege and acknowledging prejudice, it is also the treatment of the stranger, the foreign African. In theorizing the notion of hospitality, Derrida argues that  the stranger is one who is the diametrically opposed 'Other' to the Self, but the notion of community and humanity embodied in hospitality mean that co-existence is possible, but rarely is this ever the case in migration and ethnicity politics - the stranger never belongs. And for the Retiefs, there is no feeling of responsibility or hospitality towards Tommie. With news of at least five recent xenophobic killings of Zimbabweans in South Africa, I couldn't help but think of the parallels in Tommie's otherness and foreign others, like Farai Kujirichita who was wrongly accussed of a crime and bludgeoned to death in Diepsloot Pretoria.

Although I enjoyed this story, I find myself strangely coming back to my weekly question about the Caine Prize and what the choice of shorftlisted story says about how the Caine Prize sees Africa and Africans. The previous stories played up stereotypes but this is story doesn't. It's well written and deserves to be shortlisted, but why do I hate feeling like this isn't the best of African writing. I haven't quite articulated how I'd ask the question of the Caine Prize in regards to this story without sounding like a overly-critical critic, but there is a question, somewhere.

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5 comments:

mel u said...

I just completed my post on this story-I think the character of Rolo is in fact a stereo type of the brutal drunken racist who will kill to keep his race laws in place-so far I do not think the two stories I have read are up to the standards of Stick Fighting Days"

My post on "What Molly Knew"

I invite your comment on my post if you wish-I profited a lot from yours

KonWomyn said...

Thanks, I'll read your post and leave a comment later this afternoon.

Kinga Bee said...

I don't understand why people say it was well written.

It was fully of flat expository writing which anyone who has done Creative Writing 101 should know how to avoid.

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