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Karen Jennings’ Short Novel of South Africa’s History

by Nzube Nlebedim

At the end of Karen Jennings’ An Island, we feel we have come to grasping its sense, but we are shocked at how far we are from digging into its flesh. Its protagonist, Samuel, reverts decades into his past to fulfill his desire to make amends and redress the injustice of Dictator, the tyrant leader of an unnamed African country, which he was unable to accomplish during the riot. Samuel is a self-exiled 70-year-old lighthouse keeper. At the start of the story he finds a young refugee at the shore; the refugee becomes a companion to his solitary life, and a relationship builds between the two people, parallel to Achebe’s Okonkwo and Ikemefuna. This relationship later experiences a fatal episode which forms the metaphor of An Island’s structure.

Reflecting on Jennings’ An Island, I strongly felt, once more, what has always been my motivation to criticise certain works of literature. It is intrigue, a subliminal feeling of intense dislike or admiration that makes me want to write about it, judge it, and describe its nature. Daniel Mendelsohn’s words in “A Critic’s Manifesto” aligns with my conviction: “…the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in . . . hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.” This was the same feeling I got after reading Jennings’ novel. I was ten pages to the end before I tuned in at 4 PM to watch the announcement of the Booker prize shortlist. The peculiarity of the book called out to me. I marvelled at the teasing, almost playful language in which Jennings tells the story of Samuel. Through her historicisation narrative, I saw the various perspectives that existed for us as a continent in our long history of dictatorships and coups. I wasn’t surprised it was nominated for the Booker Prize. The story is an onion that unfurls elegantly, layer by layer, to a most beautiful end.

This is not the first time an African writer or novel has risen from obscurity to success and recognition following their nomination for a major prize. It is also not the first time an African is nominated for or has won the Booker Prize. African writers shortlisted for the prize in the past include JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink, Doris Lessing, Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe, Bernardine Evaristo, Abdulrazak Gurnah, and others. I was more excited when days later, I learnt Masobe Books bought the Nigerian rights to the book.

What is more amazing about Karen Jennings’ pre-Booker situation isn’t that An Island was necessarily a bad book, but because she never thought she could make anything from it. There were no indications she would ever be nominated for the Booker. Nor did she have an agent to represent her. In an article in The Guardian, Jennings tells Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett that it was “incredibly difficult” for her to get a publisher. She goes on, “I finished the novel in 2017. And no one was interested. When I did finally get a small publisher in the UK and a small publisher in South Africa to co-publish, they couldn’t get anyone to review the book. We couldn’t get people to write endorsement quotes, or blurbs.” Luck smiled on Jennings when indie publishing press Holland House decided to give the book a trial run of 500 copies which, in the end, did not do well. Jennings confesses in the same article that she felt ashamed of herself.

Masobe’s cover of Jennings’ An Island.

At the heart of Jennings’ work is a subtle motif of mirroring, of her protagonist Samuel as well as with the refugee, a trick  which may be unbeknownst to the author herself. The subtlety strikes like a razor, small and apparently harmless but shows to be the most dangerous in the end. I find this technique insightful. We glimpse this in Dictator, for example. He is at discord with his people whom he once loved and served, simply because they do not understand him, and he, in turn, doesn’t understand them well enough. For Samuel, a former revolutionary, he welcomes, helps and supports a refugee whose language he does not understand. But later he grows paranoid and feels threatened by the refugee. In the end, he misinterprets the refugee’s innocent killing of an old and vulnerable hen for danger on his own life. We ponder if this parallel is deliberate; Samuel to Dictator, and the unnamed refugee to the bludgeoned citizens of Jennings’ unnamed country in the work.

An Island opens up Africa’s history of tyranny. Woven with Jennings’ masterful storytelling, as evidenced in her other works, she taps into history, exploiting the synchronic vulnerability of time, expounding it for us to watch and enjoy and introspect. In An Island, Jennings works fictionist qua historian.

The problem with dictatorships is usually twofold: on one hand, a dictator understands what his people go through and where they come from (since he was once like them). The people, in most cases, almost never understand their dictator. On the other hand, we are presented with dictators who are aloof to their people and never seem able to understand them. This is usually rare, since dictators once, in some distant past, suffered under the hardship of precedent dictators. In the end, dictatorial regimes are cycles, one leading directly to another. Robes change, but the people in it seldom do; this has been a plague with Africa whose democracies are built on shaky foundations. It is this shakiness Jennings tackles and wants us to see.

A major problem of leadership in Africa is that it is architectured on sentiments. The most banal leaders in, say, Nigeria, have ascended to power through the sentiments of the people they claim to lead. Why else would Nigerians in 2015 elect and, four years later in 2019, re-elect a well-known autocrat than for a rationale that he is the only one they know, the only one they are used to? We grope at what feels right in our hearts even if it does not sit well in our heads. Alas, the heart is easily deceived. And so in the end, we fall out and do what we want, serving two masters at the same time. Loyalties are divided. Nnamdi Kanu, Sunday Igboho and various chieftains have become demigods in Nigeria to supplicants as blind as they are. And so we fall into the same traps. These leaders we venerate do not do as much as we want eventually. We take them out, then bring into power another with the very hands we used for the last. The problem continues.

In many cases, they grow worse. The nation in Jennings’ book is plunged into oppression by the whip of Dictator who is far worse than the last democratic ruler. He is a tyrant who unleashes hell. In An Island, he appears in a manner where we are called to the brutal and corrupt regimes in Africa, of Gnassingbé Eyadema, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Charles Taylor, Idriss Deby, Sani Abacha, Robert Mugabe, Francisco Macías Nguema, Ibrahim Babangida, Gaddafi, and Idi Amin Dada. Do we count Russia’s Joseph Stalin or Cambodia’s Pol Pot? In the end, the aggrieved people want them down. This has always come under heavy consequences of death, torture and imprisonment.

Samuel, Meria and other members of the People’s Faction in An Island go on a rampage to destroy the statue of Dictator, but when they are caught and tortured, they learn that they do not even stir any media attention. And even when Samuel grabs the police officer by the neck and watches him die, he cannot bring himself to kill the young officer, even though he is an obvious enemy. Jennings’ mirroring and paralleling is masterly. We are not surprised to see that the erstwhile harmless Samuel kills his unnamed refugee friend by battering his head in with a stone when the latter—in a move that can only be termed innocent—twists the head of the “little old hen.” Samuel sees himself in the hen, a helpless and oppressed little nobody. What we have is a problem of understanding between the oppressor and the oppressed. Samuel barely understands the refugee, and the refugee barely understands Samuel in return. Paranoia grips Samuel, the same paranoia he feels towards Dictator whom he barely knows and who does not know him. It would be interesting imagining how differently the story unfurls if Samuel understood his island companion, or Dictator, and vice versa. Leadership and the tyranny it produces, thus, remains a perpetual illusion, a maze with dead ends, ad infinitum.

When the refugee kills the hen, Samuel feels the disintegration of his own humanity and loss of his sanity. The walls of his past, of his personal and national history crumble at his feet. There are no options to thrive because by the killing of the hen, his life stops, metaphorically. The killing of the bird confirms Samuel’s suspicion of the refugee’s capacity for evil and his abandonment of hope. Jennings lets us into a tongue-in-cheek revelation, and that constitutes the more outstanding fibre of this work: its uncanny ability in showing us that we all can be tyrannical when occasion calls.

Karen Jennings was born in 1982 Cape Town, South Africa. She therefore is naturally representative of the country in her work, too. In the same Guardian article, she advocates when she says that, “Millions of people are living in these terrible conditions and they’re fed up. The government has been promising them things for 27 years now. Things have not improved for them. So they’re angry.” She continues, “South Africa has a very strong history of violence and of anger.” And so, although, she does not reveal the place in her book, it is most likely the rainbow nation. Another sleight-of-hand in her concealment design is how she neutralises identity. We assume the people in the unnamed country in An Island are Africans. But we don’t know who is black or white and never have a glimpse, especially, of the protagonist’s colour, which in certain circles would yield to the wishes of a racial analysis of her novel.

The 20th century saw the South African black majority battle with the white minority over the reclamation of rights. This was worsened with the 1948 imposition of Apartheid by the National Party, legalising the racial problem. In 1994, the situation calmed as both colour divides, as well as linguistic and cultural groups, have regained equal rights in the country’s democratic system following closely the release from prison and election of Nelson Mandela after the country’s first multiracial elections. The country has been described as one with the highest numbers of protests in history. However, South Africa has not experienced any coups or military dictatorships, and so it is hard to pair this with the reality of history.

We are then left to believe in the work’s inaccuracy to South Africa’s history, or in the author’s prophetic imagination. In which case, it hazards and hints to the prophetic logic of Chinua Achebe’s 1966 A Man of the People. An Island paints a perfect allegory of a man and a people finding their paths back towards a past, begging for reclamation♦

Nzube Nlebedim is the founding editor of The Shallow Tales Review.