We announced that we would begin publishing reviews of the top three stories from the Short Story Day Africa Prize. The stories, alongside 18 others, appear in ID: New Short Fiction from Africa, edited by Nebila Abdulmelik, Otiene Owino, and Helen Moffett, and published by New Internationalist (UK & USA). ID is out in bookstores and on Amazon Kindle. Ethiopia’s Agazit Abate was first runner-up for the 2017 Short Story Day Africa Prize for “The Piano Player.” Here it is reviewed by Nigeria’s Ebenezer Agu.
Of One Leading Tune and other Revealed Vignettes
Engaging Agazit Abate’s “The Piano Player” meant a break from a long period of reading only poetry and, occasionally, non-fiction. The first realization was that I had almost forgotten the pleasure of sheer reading, which is unlike what reading poetry had been for me—a serious, unpleasurable attempt to always discover underlying meanings and technique in every piece, even in some cases where such latency could hardly be found. Maybe much of the pleasure I got from reading “The Piano Player” was from the openness of the story.
The story opens and ends in a hotel lobby where the eponymous character is employed to entertain the clientele by performing piano pieces. It is mostly in a few events in the piano player’s life that the story plays out. In this sense, she wholly owns the story, just as she owns the opening scene where we are led into her offhanded attitude to her job at the hotel. These—the job and the hotel—are almost mere props to other factors that are of structural importance to the story. Somehow, the story seems to be an account of lives: firstly, the life of the piano player; and then, those of a few other customers in the lobby. Central to the piano player’s life is her childhood with a friend, Ayne, which is broken when Ayne leaves with her family to America. When the piano player reminisces some moments from this period in her life, the atmosphere blends longing with an underlying lack of closure, persisting even till the end of the story.
Other characters are given only one screen time each and the plot continues in this way to create a mixtape of vignettes. There is the hookup episode in which we witness the not uncommon, condescending attitude that some White people bring with their mission to Africa. With a note of enthusiasm, Simon tells the girl he’s about to hook up with that “Africa is so underrated”—a statement passed off so flippantly, enough to escape attention had he not being playing a song by Celine Dion. Celine Dion in Africa—how strange could it get? One begins to wonder whether his first statement was a commendation, or the best a man could do when deluded by privilege, entitlement, and a terrible awkwardness at hooking up.
Next is the story of Abiye, wherein the old meets the young, briefly; with an unflattering remark about a group of youngsters at a table who engage their phones rather than each other. But that encounter quickly digresses into the chronicle of a family history, collected over three years by Abiye, who is about to pass it on to his brother’s child. We learn of this family history without any detail: except an inference that almost every Ethiopian family story involves one or more Italians at some point. After that, we witness a brief story of a major slip where a character tries in vain to remember the name of the song the piano player is playing. This slip resonates with the general attitude of the story, which leaves the reader with almost nothing by the time the story closes. And then there follows the account of an unusual divorce—a gossip, really—reported by one of the customers in the lobby. After that, skip one fleeting account and we witness a humorous moment where two friends celebrate the granting of a visa to one of them.
Through all these, the piano player persists on her instrument, creating for these other incidents a musical environment to thrive in, beyond the physical space of the hotel lobby. Almost, it seems that the piano player is the narrator of the whole story, that is, if we lose track of the fact that every other incident is told through dialogue, except the ones that involve the piano player. In its brief scope, Agazit demonstrates the typical character of every hotel lobby, revealing the individual backstories of the customers in that space, and ultimately performing a certain curiosity felt by most of us in a public place—imagining other people’s backstories.
The language in “The Piano Player” is straightforward and almost clinic clean. One struggles to find any figurative usages. Mostly, it reads like an exercise from a creative writing class—workshopped over and over, to the point that the reader is made to ponder. Add that to its many short sentences and one is tempted to not return to it, not because it is sloppy, which it isn’t, but because the critical reader might find nothing else beyond the first reading.
Almost everything in “The Piano Player” is given at surface value, nothing is taken in-depth. Even when the piano player narrates her childhood with Ayne, a point where you expect the story to take an emotional leap, it still passes as mere recounting. The story carries a certain singularity of purpose which, considered strictly on the level of craft, does not reduce it, but ensures that its sheer simplicity makes it difficult to tailor a serious conversation to it. It makes it difficult to even write a review that doesn’t simply summarize the story.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
EBENEZER AGU is a poet and an essayist. He is the founding editor of 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and a photography enthusiast, who publishes his shots on his Instagram feed: ebenezer_agu98. He currently lives in Kano, northwest Nigeria.