A review of Olufemi Terry’s short story ‘Stickfighting Days’ which won the 2010 Caine Prize
This stark story of primitive violence has to it the quality of elemental fable. It is told in prose that is hewn often with a precise chisel. Yet I couldn’t help feeling shortchanged by the writer as I read the story for the third(?) straight time. Olufemi Terry’s construction of a landscape of urban dystopia peopled only by underage boys cannot be taken for granted. It must be accounted for, however thinly or vaguely. No doubt, emplotment and motivation in the story are superbly handled, and the scenes of brutal fighting linger in the memory like graceful movements in stylized dancing. But there is a basic lack. How can we read this story and be comfortable with urchins who are schooled in Tolkien and in the history and manners of Laconia and its capital Sparta? It is not enough to say that Salad taught them all of these things. Who taught Salad? And I was aghast at this sentence from thirteen-year-old Raul, the narrator and self-confessed street urchin: ‘I know that what I did wasn’t technically illegal, but I feel an apology is needed.’ This is from a dialogue. Raul is not here addressing the reader. He is talking to another street urchin like himself in the language of a barrister! The landscape in which the boys dwindle their violent existence is deformed and bleak through and through, but their language now and again crests on a literary, indeed erudite, height. I mean just listen to the urchin Lapy deliver this line: ‘Psychologically that would have demoralized Markham too much.’ If he can say ‘psychologically’ then he might just as well say ‘anthropologically’ or even declare thus: ‘By the principles of aerodynamics, I think you have an excellent rapier in that Mormegil of yours.’
My theory is that this problem of incoherence, for incoherence it is, has been created by an author who has refused to furnish any kind of larger social backdrop for his construction of a terrain of urban terror. There is an ‘outside’ to the world of the dump, an outside where people clutch their purses in fear when they see an urchin, an outside that ‘wants to pity but can’t’. Not only is this outside briefly brought in only to be banished forthwith from the frame of the story, but the world inside the dump is hermetically sealed off from social variety—no men, no women, no girls, and there is no explanation or excuse for this. The concept of boys, more or less isolated, living out a fable of brooding or stark evil has been material for great literature before. For instance, this short story calls up to my mind William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I daresay it is obvious to any of us that Olufemi Terry’s ‘Stickfighting Days’ shares a genre affinity with that masterpiece. All the same, the recall comes to me with a feeling of disappointment at what Terry does not achieve by isolating his boys in a socially wrecked never-never, and expecting that we will take at face value their being cut off from the rest of the world. That right is denied these boys because they allude to our literature, not a literature of their own manufacture. How did they come to know it so well as to domesticate it in their never-never of abjection and terror? This query may seem extraneous to the all-important question of craft in the short story. But then consider the formal language of much of the dialogue, consider the ‘deep’ learning of these urchins in Tolkien and the classics, and it becomes clear why I think the story has not been fully, and I should say fully well, told until we know something of the educational background of these slum-dog professors.
What is more, we can’t be content to hide behind the curtain of print and watch these boys clobber one another into the dust and slime. We need to be told, however dismissive the manner of the telling, why we are incapable of intervening. After all, these boys could not have been wholly responsible for the original wreckage of their social milieu. Yes, unmediated isolation makes for a striking and intense tableau of terror; yet it all seems contrived, artificial. For boys do not come into such atrocious being by themselves even if it saves us much narrative labour to assume that we can pluck them out of the corrupt air and dump them in a place where they cannot be reached by the PTA, by sisters and girlfriends, by laws, regulations and morality—a place where boys may safely inflict on one another stark-naked violence.
True, Olufemi Terry achieves universality by leaving out a plausible larger social backdrop for the action and existence of these boys, but it is a universality that encompasses not the world of genuine people but rather conjures up a species of chimeras that not even fiction can bring fully alive. Street urchins in Lagos whose argot is in Mandarin Chinese cannot be taken for granted, nor would we take for granted yobbos in Dundee who hold street corner readings from the poetry of Adebayo Faleti. It is in this sense that I feel the author shortchanges us, though by that very act the imagination is fired to speculate ad infinitum on how urchins may acquire an education that gives such literary shape and clothing to their rituals of naked violence.
So I confess that ‘Stickfighting Days’ provides an example of what a piece of good literature, however inadequate we deem it, does to the imagination. It presses one’s imagination to engage it and to retell the story in a way that makes one begin to see an outline of the larger picture, if not the larger picture itself. I believe it is through this kind of exercise that we can compensate ourselves for the fast one that Olufemi Terry pulls on us in his story. And it is not the classic Barthean death of the author I am talking about here. My concern is with the dearth of the tale. Part of the gist which my imagination has supplied as background to the story is that somehow Salad, one of the oldest boys who, by the time we meet him in the story, is now the only man in the dump, long ago pillaged the library of a Professor of Literae Humaniores living on the outside. He is thus able to give a proper finish to his own education and to supply the other boys with the necessary rhetoric and metaphysic for making sense of the culture of violence which they live out in that milieu of utter desolation. The brutish life is coming to an end one of these days for all of these boys. But even as they poison and maim and destroy one another—the sticks that Einstein famously feared a Fourth World War will be fought with enjoy pride of place in their retrenched arsenal—they still have literature to fall back on. One of the themes of this fable, then, is that literature will always have a place in the world, no matter how terribly things deteriorate; in fact, the fable tells us that literature provides a frame for how violently we live our lives and that we will always find it hard to explain how people get their stories.
The writer of this story has won himself a prize by serving up fare that catches fire in the imagination. And I congratulate him, but with the reservations contained herein.