Review: The Sack
Photograph: The Guardian
‘The Sack’ is a short-story penned by Zambian author Namwali Serpell about the dark difficulties of co-existence set against a context that comes in and out of focus at Namwali’s will.
The story is centered around a mysterious grudge between ‘J’ and ‘the man’. Namwali doesn’t refer to the characters by their names and even when we learn that there is a Jacob and a Joseph, it is unclear who is who. It’s hard to tell how this contributes to the plot but it does makes the story a lot more difficult to predict. Namwali’s story should be incoherent and yet it is just the contrary: effortlessly immersive.
It unfolds unconventionally, with the story’s end being hinted at through dream-like prose on the very first page.
There’s a sack. A sack? A sack. Hmm. A sack. Big? Yes. Grey. Like old kwacha. Marks on the outside. No. Shadows. That’s how I know it is moving. Something is moving inside it? The whole sack is moving. Down a dirt road with a ditch on the side, with grass and yellow flowers.
The title of the story comes from the object in the man’s dream which seems to be covering a body. A body that he suspects is his. Told from the point of view of the man and then in the third person, The Sack gives the reader a detailed glimpse into the man’s thoughts through his stream of consciousness. The man’s reflections are intimate because, as we soon learn, he often addresses directly albeit in thought, his dead lover Naila.
My chest is full of cracked glass. That is how it feels when I cough. But the glass never shatters — there is not even that relief of complete pain.
J, who is younger and stronger than the man, helps out around the house, feeds and takes care of the man. It isn’t clear why however. Even more troubling is that there seems to have been a shared love for Naila between the two men. It is vague still, to whom Naila’s love was ultimately given but there are signs that she lived with the man or as the man suggests that Naila chose him.
Some days, I think you loved me for my hands. Other days, I think you threw stones to decide.
Namwali’s story differs very little from the man’s recurring dreams, it is told in disorienting prose and yet beautifully crafted to keep the reader wanting to know more. There’s close to nothing known about the characters’ past save for the deeply nostalgic descriptions reminiscent of the man’s halcyon days.
Your eyelids are like smooth stones in this picture. I am a fool beside you. We reek of arrogance, all of us, J. with his Nehru shirt. How far he has fallen, sweeping and cooking for me like I’m a musungu. This picture must have been taken before the Kalingalinga rally, the one that led to the riot. Do you remember? We were so hopeful. So very young.
Namwali’s ‘The Sack’ feels ever increasingly like a dream, or a nightmare depending on which part of the story you find yourself. It is dark, beautiful and often times a complete enigma. You think you know what will happen but the writer begs that you re-consider.
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.
You can read or download The Sack in PDF format from here
- Author: Namwali Serpell
- Awards: Winner of the 2015 Caine Prize for African Fiction in English
- Published in: 2015
- Pages: 13 pages