The Sack by Namwali Serpell is an engrossing and interesting short story fitted with a melancholic feel. I believe the judges also felt the same when they awarded it the Caine prize for African Writing 2015.
The story starts out with a conversation. An ailing old man narrates a dream he had to J.; his steward, talking about how a man was tied in a sack while being dragged along the road by another man. This is an absolute opener to a plot. While the reader only perceives a bland conversation not understanding its significance, it still pulls one in, sprouting an eagerness to know what comes afterwards.
An immediately catchy characteristic of the story is the absence of character names. There are three main characters present; J., the old man and a young boy, where J. is the only thing closest to an actual name. Although, some other names are mentioned, they are of dead people who are being remembered.
The opening section of the story is seen from J.’s perspective in third person, where we could discern that his stewardship at the old man’s house is a kind of slavery where a long term debt is being repaid. We immediately learn that J. is fed up with the old man’s excesses – He thought of the man in the bedroom, hating him in that tender way he had cultivated over the years.
Most of the story is told first person from the old man’s point of view. The old man; frustrated, immobile and unable to help himself has recurring dreams where he is being led to his death. However, his dreams occur backwards. He becomes more frustrated when J. brings in the young isabi boy that brings fish for them into the house to stay. He sees this as an intrusion from J. who does not treat him like a real bwana.
The story vacillates between dreams, lucidity and reality with a lot recurring blasts from the past, and it requires full concentration while reading not to get lost in between the dimensions. The author expertly fuses these three elements finely, consistently going back and forth, where we see series of stand-alone conversations between the old man and Naila starting and ending abruptly while switching back to the main story, thus spelling profoundly the old man’s senility and paranoia. We can guess that Naila is probably the dead wife of the old man and she appears to be a subject of contention between J. and the old man.
From the conversations, it is evident that the old man’s deteriorated state of physical and mental wellbeing is as a result of the loss of Naila, the author hinted vaguely that Naila had been gone for twenty years. The story generally features varying moments of reminiscing, the old man did this for the most parts, and J. also has his moments – he hadn’t tasted chibwabwa ne’ntwilo in twenty years. Naila’s favourite–
The story ends where it starts just as we can say it starts where it ends. Here, the author deftly brings in the grey sack back to centre stage. Unlike the entire story all along, we now see it through the eyes of the young isabi boy, who is now servant to J., his bwana. The story ends sonorously, entrenched in the final paragraph, we can see the three main themes of the story; love, hunger and fear which is what drives the three main characters – the boy’s mind was empty but for a handful of notions – love, hunger, fear – darting like birds within, crashing into curved walls in a soundless, pitiless fury.-
The story is a marvellous one throughout without any boring sections. I like how the author maintained the melancholy making me stay grasped in all through. And I will also add that it is a demanding story and may require a re-read to understand it fully, kind of like the Inception movie. The story has a great start and a fantastic end. With the delivery, surely I have no objections with it winning the African Booker.
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