September 2009

Erin McKnight


Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez

To suggest that Robert Lopez's Kamby Bolongo Mean River is redolent of other literary works is to detract from its discerning originality and fearless rendition. In examining confinement the novel certainly telegraphs the stark spirit of Samuel Beckett's later writings, yet Lopez's innovative meditation on isolation is singular in its grim humor and emotional influence. Framed by the obsessively bizarre yet sincere outlook of a young man held under observation in unknown environs, Kamby Bolongo is a mesmeric interpretation of words: "what is between the words and behind them."

As the subject of ongoing and aimless tests, Lopez's narrator is tethered to the world beyond his prison by a telephone that doesn't dial out. The agony of expecting this phone to ring proves as precarious as any confrontation with a voice on the other end of the line, yet the protagonist's response is readied from the novel's first sentence. It is, however, this young man's internal dialogue -- relating memories of an unfortunate upbringing in Injury, Alaska alongside an older, unreliable brother and a resentful and often-unemployed mother -- that interprets the fecund space between speaking and listening and fuels a delusion which falls just short of debilitating.

Compulsively focused on the suggestive space between words, Lopez's imprisoned protagonist relies on stick-figure drawings to delineate context and depict both an explicit and innate meaning. Capable of sketching only when naked, the abandon of the act underscores the narrator's desire for freedom from communicative convention -- from the series of overwhelming decisions regarding language selection and the understanding of received words as forming a successive sense of meaning, should the ringing phone disturb his space. Although buffered by his room's sterile silence, this character's mental landscape is invaded by the squeaking tone of an old television -- his only tangible memory of an "educational" movie that compels both recovery and illness. The Kamby Bolongo slave man was trapped, his foot chopped off as punishment for an attempted escape, yet the loss of his limb also is representative of a never-compromising faith in independence. Tied to a tree with the dismembered foot beside him, the guinea man appreciated that imprisonment is relative -- that when drawing stick figures "you can make them do anything," and that even the most rigid or brutal of confinement is incapable of fully quelling a primal desire for independence.

Endowed with a spirit that falls just shy of complacent in his incarceration, the narrator's wry sense of humor is perhaps Lopez's most provocative achievement. Guileless across pages of minimalist prose, the protagonist is easily recognizable as equally approving of his own joyful wit. But if his delight is shared, so too are his futile exercises in control. Pitifully inspirational, the impetus behind his fight for an air conditioner to ease his sweating and prevent the chafing of his thighs instills in the reader an appreciation that this young man's acceptance of his invariable existence is not to be mistaken for compliance.

Much as his characterization of this victim of an ever-present head pain and damaging upbringing is textured, Lopez's layering of words is astounding. His diction may appear ordinary, but the space between what is said and what the reader hears is profound. This work of fiction is disturbing and inspiring and at all times hypnotic, as not even commas are permitted to interfere with, or make sense of, the distinctive message transmitted. It may prove heartening to assume that Robert Lopez agonized over every word included in Kamby Bolongo Mean River, but the ease of his narrative is suggestive of a skill that can't quite help itself, of a control that manages to tumble and roam within the tightest limitations. In a novel where contrast abounds, the closing message to "say you are who you are and where you are" may seem suggestive of a wrong-number call, but if this protagonist has taught the reader anything it is that words most readily disclose their intentions when they go unarticulated -- that the significance of this fine novel is wholly brought to bear when the protagonist's ultimate request for silencing peace is granted.


Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez
Dzanc Books
ISBN: 097671776X
188 Pages

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