Title: The Case of the Criminal Walk and Other Stories
Author: Hama Tuma
Book review by Tom Seymour
Perhaps it was inevitable, seeing as I had read a good deal Hama Tuma’s satire before I read any of his fiction, that I would read his short stories for his politics, and for the keen sense of justice that marks his satirical essays. There is much of this to be found in his fiction. First, in his sardonic depictions of petty bureaucrats, government thugs and political bullies, whose cool treatment of suffering is a recurring feature of the stories. Second, in his own third-person narrative voice which, for all the irony and dark humour of the stories, is still prone to talking in a direct and sincere tone: ‘The rich and heartless tried to keep within the sanitized confines of their four wheel drives with tinted windows, their walled comfortable villas, some with the coveted swimming pools, and the plush drinking bars of the ultra-modern high class hotels like the Arab-built Sheraton which contrasted grotesquely with the slums besieging it and all posh villas’. A great deal of the interest in these stories comes from the tension between these two modes: one wry and sideways, defeating people with their own words; the other plangent and ethical, invoking transcendent ideas of right and wrong from a place outside the narrative.
The most overt appearance of ‘rumour’ as a theme in these stories, is surely in ‘The Rumours Bar’. In this bar, ‘tall tales get told as tongues wax lyrical after a good helping of the potent Dagim araqie and the house speciality, a cocktail drink called Damtew/ Bulldozer made up of some whisky, vodka, and God knows what else’. Instantly we are in the territory of Tuma the laconic-observer. Whatever goes on in this bar, whatever we hear in the rest of the story, will be ever-so-slightly undercut by this description. People here are comfortable, and a bit pissed. The main story that is told that night in the Rumour Bar, however, is told in the voice of Tuma the activist: ‘This Zewdu also joined the underground movement, took part in very many heroic actions and when he was captured he did not break under torture but committed suicide and took the secrets to the grave’. And so Tuma’s two voices are joined in a wonderful antagonism: one focusing on the atmosphere of confidence and intrigue, the other narrating a tragic and important story that sits on top of this dramatic atmosphere. Each voice hardly acknowledges the other.
The story called ‘The Mob’ is very relevant here. In this story, a crowd of people spill through a city ‘like a vigorous flood with destruction as its mission’. In the snatched shouts that we overhear as the mob spates towards its quarry, we come to realise that there is no single reason for people to be chasing this man. Someone asks if he is a thief, someone if he is a rapist, and no one answers. The mob is a good likeness of a powerful rumour – new people see the great passing crowd, and rather than demanding to know the truth of what is going on, they join in. The crowd gets bigger. If people do ask what the man has done wrong, it is an afterthought: ‘”What did he do?” one asked, as he fell into step [my emphasis] and joined the others’. Eventually the mob, this great physical rumour of a thing, reaches such a size that a drunk soldier barges in, and the tragedy is consummated.
‘The Mob’, like the Zewdu story in ‘The Rumour Bar’, gives us the impression that Tuma is rather fearful of rumour. In both cases a violence of character, a historic discontent or dissatisfaction, finds its release in a brutal act, by accepting a hint (a suggestion, a rumour) as truth. The running man; the disembodied voice. ‘Rumour’ in these stories represents an opportunity for characters to follow their violent impulses, and forget about enquiring into the truth of their situation.
However, I feel like this is not a complete account of Tuma’s outlook on ‘rumour’.
In the story that gives the collection it’s title, a prisoner is berated in court for the manner of his walk. Readers with a background in the western canon will no doubt be put in mind of Pinter by the baroque, inquisitorial speeches Tuma gives to his lawyer: ‘Was he strolling arrogantly? Walking briskly? Were his lips curled in disgust as he walked? Were his eyes narrow with contempt like a chauvinist? Was he pounding on the pavement or moving surreptitiously like a spy?…’. The judge, delighted by this taxonomy of walks offered him by the prosecutor, rejoins: ‘Let us try to pin-point the criminal walk’. ‘I would say’ concludes the policeman, ‘That the prisoner was walking the dangerous criminal walk. Between a stealth and a manouevre. I would even say the arrogant walk of a Kilil-hopper’. This is not the language of rumour but of science. In an ornate, satirical court-room scene, Tuma cunjours up a bizarre pseudo-scientific classification of walks, by which the fate of his arraigned jay-walker will be decided.
I would like to suggest that Tuma sees ‘rumour’, though potentially dangerous, as one of the best weapons with which Ethiopians have been able to challenge the violence and absurdities of successive governments. Tuma’s petty officials and government thugs aspire to being proprietors of the historical record. ‘He alleged’ says the Prosecutor in The Case of the Criminal Walk ‘that the government runs concentration camps, when it is on record that the government has said it holds not even one political prisoner’. Official records and approved historical accounts are, in Tuma’s eyes, far too corrupted and abused to be appropriate repositories for historical memory. He trusts rumour better: history that is not kept on obscure records but validated at each iteration by the conviction and principles of the teller, the historian. ‘Memory serves to cherish the past, the sacrifices, the sufferings endured by those who had left their footprints in history and in this way a people stood united against forgetfulness, keeping watch over its heritage’.