Short Story Review – Bao Ralambo – Blastomycosis (trans. Allison M. Charette)

I am often reminded of a lecture series by John Merriman, in which he discusses at great length and admirable passion the struggles of the working and middle classes during the great upheavals of the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries, and then the eventual carnage of World War I and II, which sees millions of young men chewed up and a continent unable to fathom how it had become so ravenous for blood and death.

In one lecture, he discusses the rise of technology, and how mechanisation, automation, and the factory, combined to throw thousands of skilled workers on to the streets.  Tailors did not wake up one day and forget how to make a suit, he says, rather they were no longer needed because a factory line process was able to sufficiently atomise and automate the creation of clothing such that a person could make ten, twenty arms an hour, or spend an entire day sewing buttons, or – and then limitless goods could be made.  But what to do with all of the tailors?

Bao Ralambo’s story, Blastomycosis, examines this problem from a very different angle.  Rather than wonder about the tailors or tanners or bakers or potters, she instead examines the challenges the very, very poor face when a large city undergoes a transformation, and begins to clean itself up.

On the surface, gentrification is generally considered a good thing, at least economically speaking.  But in this story we view the world from the perspective of Lemizo, an entrepreneurial fellow who has learned to work within the system of the city in order to make a living.  He has a ‘clan’, a group of people who, like him, scavenge among bins and general waste in order to chase scrap metal, useful containers, bottles, food.

The locals were decent bourgeois folk, comfortable enough without being completely well-off; their daily lives ticked by as regularly as a metronome, and they had hearts of gold whenever the dual calendar of Christian and national holidays called for it.

He has had his run-ins with the law, both the police, and the Great Council, an ill-defined, but clearly important part of the general functioning of the city.  If this was a fantasy novel, I expect it’d be the Thieves Guild or some such.  But it’s not, and so we have violence and restrictions from the state, and recrimination and swift repercussions from a powerful, shadowy organisation.  Lemizo must walk a fine line, and he’s good at it.

But then:

…he was startled by how little there was in the first dumpster: nothing for the metal container that held food scraps, just three stopperless bottles, and that was all. Unheard of! Slightly baffled, Lemizo continued down the street. Next dumpster: same story, in minute detail.

The city – his part of it – has cleaned itself up.  It’s nicer.  But this is not ideal for a scavenger:

The impossible was happening, the unimaginable. The starry-eyed, middle-class bourgeoisie weren’t throwing anything out anymore, unless they had squeezed every last bit of usefulness out of it. The delicately balanced coexistence of two urban societies had just been knocked completely off-kilter. Lemizo shuddered to consider what violence would result from such a shock to the systems of two hordes of people that were, in reality, scrounging for resources from the same finite supply.

Ralambo goes to great lengths to describe the turmoil of the undercity as it attempts to deal with this sudden shock.  In this, we see the rise of the rebellious working class as it tries as hard as it can to stay above water, to keep going just a little longer.  Factions form and join their voices together in order to be heard – they aren’t.  Spies infiltrate the enriched middle-class in an attempt to understand what is happening – they don’t.  Lemizo and his clan do what they can to stem the tide – nothing works.

Nothing works.  A culture, such as it is, is being killed, suffocated with cleanliness, better buildings, strong transportation, clearer air.  You or I visiting this city would marvel at its sights and its burgeoning restaurant scene.  But Lemizo?  He’s dead, I expect, and the children, too, who relied on him for the fatty scraps of uneaten food which used to littler the streets.  Times have changed, and probably for the better, but there’s always a group that ends up destroyed, pushed out of the way in order that the betterment of the rest is reached.  And is this a good thing?  Ralambo suggests quite clearly at the end of the story that the answer is no, and that when the absolute lowest are dead and gone, there is always another, new ‘lowest’, and that it will soon be their time.

And so it goes on, the rich eating the poor, the poor eating wind pudding and air pie.

Blastomycosis is a short story by Malagasy writer Bao Ralambo, and was translated by Allison M. Charette.  You can read the story online at Words Without Borders.

Author Bao Ralambo
Title Blastomycosis
Translator Allison M. Charette
Nationality Malagasy
Publisher Words Without Borders – December 2015 – Knowing the Unknowable: Writing from Madagascar

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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