THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES
a bedtime story for children of all ages living in democracies
to Amal Sewtohul,
wode peng you, wode da ge
No one is absolutely certain where Paradise is.
Try this. Look for the Continent that does not know it is the richest in the world, head south and turn abruptly. You are there. Can you see it? Perfect nature; multicultural harmony; demos cratos; model of development for its continent; more or less evenly spread affluence.
A small island shimmering like gold, as golden as all that glistens...
The writer Mark II called the island Paradise, and he is a difficult father to have. From the other side of the Ocean, Bernardina de San Pedro the mother left a similarly heavy heritage, calling it idyllic. How to live up to such perfection? Many a child bearing such a heavy burden will end up going to the other extreme for an identity – perhaps a certain devotional attachment to “Unity in Mediocrity”.
2037: Goldtooth has served as a Minister during the last forty governments, regardless of the party in power. The crucial point at which to choose your party carefully is just before elections. He has done so consistently by an irreproachable instinct, a good ear on the ground but also thanks to a good number of men with a good ear on the right doors and to women with the right gymnastics in the wrong beds. He has been miraculously capable of prescience, and he always wins the jackpot, the right political party combination that will win – he knows, the way many in Paradise know who will win an election ahead of time. Goldtooth is ever a winner, with the right touch for the wheel of fortune of Paradise politics. When referring to his exceptional political longevity in a country that changes governments as often as it can, Paradise Islanders call Goldtooth the Emperor, a name that makes him beam imperially. Perhaps the name also refers to certain other attributes...
Goldtooth’s endless re-election, some say, makes vox populi vox dei more like an empty mantra in a dead language. They fail to understand how it simplifies election. No matter who the people choose, the same remain in power. This is part of an effort to simplify both the political system and the electoral process. It is an effort in favour of the ever-grateful people of Paradise. To further simplify things, political parties and their names are no indication of anything. All parties are neither right, nor left: they drive straight down the middle of the road hoping nobody will hit them. So vote according to your favourite colour – so much simpler – and prettier.
Goldtooth is Minister of Paper Clips, Pins & Related Affairs. The Ministry of Paper Clips, Pins & Related Affairs was instituted in the middle of the Economic Depression 2022. Its motto “Waste not, want not”, its main aim was to reduce expenditure across Paradise by minding small waste, such as of paper clips and pins which, it assured, would raise the economy out of the quagmire. Indeed, under Goldtooth’s guidance the Ministry has led to savings of the order of US$ 1 million no less almost every year. When founded, it was hailed as an unprecedented innovation. Experts from all over the world arrived to learn from the experience. The Ministry of Paper Clips, Pins & Related Affairs costs, on average, US$ 100 millions a year to run.
Goldtooth changes mistresses as often as he changes governments but stays with the one wife as surely as he will stick to his one Ministry of Paper Clips, Pins & Related Affairs. His wife, Pallida, is a face with no body – she is a long-faced, pale-faced, sad-faced matron, who uses oil-paint on her face to draw expressions. She wanes next to Goldtooth as he sits sunnily in the patriarch’s chair. Next to Goldtooth are the two pineapples of his eyes, his son and his daughter – Silver and Bronze. Silver stands sulkily, hands in pockets; Bronze has a long thin hand on her father’s shoulder that speaks of almost wifely ownership and looks at the world with the haughty eyes of the truly insecure - she knows that as a daughter she does not matter in her family, but also that she is the best son her father will never have. A regal family picture.
As surely as married people will frantically seek friends for and as distraction, bad luck craves company. In May of this year 2037, the Island of Paradise is facing double trouble. On the one hand global warming is causing the rise of sea-level, and the whole island is about to drown. On the other, and perhaps as a result of the rise of the waters, the island of Paradise is encountering a serious outbreak of ethnic blindness.
In 2037, there are no glaciers left, except, evidently, the new ice shelves of the Sahara and across the Eastern Sahel, the new stopovers for cool dudes and dudettes, testing the new Hand-ski, also known as Upside Down Ski, where your miniature ski is tied to your hands as you scream your way down ice-dunes. Meanwhile, most of the lowlands of Paradise Island are submerged. It happens none too gradually. But there is no time for the past, no time for any long-term future either, just a hardcore present. Walls are erected to at least save the highlands where those who matter live, with expertise from the Netherlands – Paradise Island can afford such solutions. So it’s business as usual.
Ethnic blindness (Myopia genus) was first diagnosed in the United States in 2009. The disease attacks one withoutasmuchas a Ni hao, a Jambo, a Salamalekum or a Howdy mate – no clear prognosis is available, but a disturbing friendliness to identifiably dangerous others is often noted in the weeks preceding the onset of the disease. Isolation is recommended as soon as it is diagnosed. One night you go to bed, in full possession of your faculty of ethnic consciousness. You can see clearly who to trust, who not to, good and evil, family values, diplomacy. Overnight, it attacks your retina, debilitating retinal sensibility and inhibiting the normal spontaneous dilation of your pupils. It mostly disables the nerve ends that send colour signals to your brain. At first you are unable to recognise physical differences but during the late stages of the disease, your sense of hearing and smell are also affected and you are unable to recognise accents and – more debilitating still – to smell difference, so essential to survival. The only (blind?) spot of good news – and there is one, fortunately – is that ethnic blindness is not very contagious – how it is caught however is mostly sporadic and unpredictable.
Although the popular view in Paradise that ethnic blindness was introduced by new immigrants is absolutely discounted by scientists, it continues to persist, side-by-side with conspiracy theories about government. Paradise hospitals are at a loss over how to deal with this strange new ailment. In fact, when Paradise doctors contact hospitals in other countries, they are equally clueless as to how to help.
To ward off against both the rising waters and ethnic blindness however, the good men and women of all communities gather together regularly to sing to their various gods, to burn to the stake the weak, promiscuous women, new immigrants, the otherwise capable, homosexuals, carriers of lice, the suspiciously overtalented, the dangerously efficient, passive and active smokers, drug-addicts, the deserving poor, the undeserving poor, and the poorly washed, and also to partake of fizzy drinks and homemade sandwiches.
Goldtooth’s son, Silver, is reading his first degree at the Expensive University. He is following a new family tradition. It is his father’s old university.
As a boy, Silver once played at wearing his father’s University tie. And, while Pallida, his mother, rushed to wriggle the tie from Silver’s neck, Goldtooth was beaming with pride. Goldtooth announced to the sobbing six-year old cinematically: “Someday, my son, you will be an Expensive graduate too!” Just then, the little boy had suddenly thrown up on the precious tie, mistaking tie and bib. Goldtooth had reminded his son of the incident before he left for University. “Son!” he declaimed grandly, “You owe your dear father something – a new tie. At your graduation, you will have to pay back your debt thus – I will ask for a new tie from Expensive.” This time they both cried, holding each other – this time Silver did not throw up.
Goldtooth has made it good by a determination not be like his father, whom he judges to be an unambitious loser and a dreamer. His own father had been totally unschooled. The memory of his father chased him like a mad dog throughout his life, enabling him to never rest on his laurels, and to win the race of life.
The motto of the Expensive University is: “Felix sine culpa” and it teaches sons and daughters of the great how to be great, how to win always.
Silver has a silver spoon in his mouth and he carries the metallic taste through his University days. The father awaits the son’s return, degree in hand, waiting to congratulate him for his effort by offering him an effortless, well-paid job.
At University, Silver is unable to see the pain of less fortunate foreign migrants, those with no hope behind and none ahead, those sent out to send back money to feed wife, husband, children, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces and other dependants, those who cannot afford to return, who live in small boxes, hold on to each other desperately. Silver never sees any of this. What he sees of the Outsideland is coolforeigners, easywomen, and greatplans. Retrospectively, most of Silver’s memory of University is of a drunken and smoken blur. Such is the greatness of the Expensive University that his intellectual obscurity will last a lifetime, hardly affected by certain calls of the grassroots in everyday life. In short, he is to remain essentially innocent of knowledge until his actual return to Paradise. There he will be trained into a very particular brand of pragmatism.
From his University in the Outside, Silver is waxing lyrical to his pater:
“I was lost in a small country
Found myself in a big country
Yet I need to return to the narrow Inside
To make sense of what I learnt in the wide Outside.”
Meanwhile, Goldtooth is rather desperate for the Boy to start waxing practical. This is urgent – Silver is his only boy and somehow he senses that now the boy may have to become a man pretty soon. He will need to understand and engage with power-play in Paradise – that the Republic is going bananas may not be such a bad thing after all.
PLATO'S REPUBLIC AND A RECIPE FOR DISASTER
Power has a phallic shape. And courting it has nothing platonic about it. More like courting disaster.
The Paradise banana is small and flavoursome. It, and not the apple, is the national fruit of the Republic of Paradise.
There is a major battle in the country over how best to prepare the Republic’s small delicious bananas, the banana republic as they are called after the French habit of reversing adjectives and nouns. Some argue they are best picked half-ripe, sliced julienne, quickly seized in and sealed with, sesame seed oil and prepared with fish and a dollop of tamarind, a sprinkle of small dried shrimp, thickened with shrimp paste and a little curry powder. Others feel the banana is best selected ripe, chopped roughly, tossed in butter, with muscovado sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, folded into condensed milk and crushed none too smoothly with a fork, spooned into a crumbly biscuit casing, covered with flour lattices brushed with egg and syrup and baked until golden.
Anyone suggesting one can have both, one as main course with plain rice, and the second as dessert, or that the debate is useless runs the risk of being scoffed at universally. If anything, the laughter this occasions ends up uniting everyone in mirth, which is quite a feat.
While debate is raging, the water-level is rising steadily, threatening to engulf the land with its intense debaters.
Whereas Goldtooth styles himself one of the fathers of the Nation, fork-tongued Paradise Islanders call him the Storytelling Father. They say that he is a master of storytelling, tells the people tall tales, and what he wants them to hear, then sends them to sleep, numbing their vigilance. What kind of father...?
When Silver returns to Paradise Island, he is immediately weighed down by high hopes. Not of course before he is treated like a Prodigal son returned, to the fatted calf.
Goldtooth is swimming in money, in a pool emptied of water then filled with gold coins of which the straightforward Minister’s salary is only a tiny drop. The rest of the pool comes from supernatural sources – pots mysteriously appearing at the foot of rainbows, afreets pointing clammy fingers at buried treasure, dehins summoning demonic apparitions with the smell of fresh baby’s blood for indications, and a present from Minisprins guarding your house and family, standing over five metres tall, or the fabled accursed treasure of the corsairs revealed by a one- legged apparition.
Goldtooth sits his son down a mere week after his return and explains how dire the situation is, what-with the rise of the waters in the country and the outbreak of ethnic blindness and delineates his responsibilities as well. Silver is most attentive to his father. Goldtooth explains frankly to his son how, while the son will have to struggle to extend the Dynasty, he is not exactly starting with nothing. Besides the pool of money, people respect Goldtooth in Paradise.
“Sow your oats wild, get all the fun you will. I myself am no saint, you know...”
Pause for a masculine guffaw to share.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!”
“But do not fall into this business of love. It will only weaken you and thwart your plans for the future...”
The father continues:
“Marriage for you will need to be based on strategy alone.”
“Is that why you married Mom? Was it Grandpa’s money?”
“There are things that you are too young to understand, son. I, myself didn’t comprehend the ways of the world until much later in life.”
Goldtooth stops to look into nothingness for a while, an effort to look wise. His gaze then returns to Silver.
“Your other grandfather, my father, is a bad example – he was a weak man, dominated by his emotions. Where would we be if I had followed him? You carry his blood in your veins and success, my son, is a constant struggle between one side of you and another, a struggle between what you are and what you could be instead. Under no circumstances let the mask down. Never let go.”
“Thanks, Dad!” Silver is feeling like a little boy.
“One final secret, son. Whenever you feel weak. Whenever you feel like you are in danger of too much sympathy with the people of the Republic, think of them as sperm from lesser men.” “Yuck, Dad!”
“You got it, son!”
Goldtooth explains to his son further how ethnic blindness is eroding the Republic’s morale.
The appointment of Ministers in Paradise is a purely ethnic game – they are appointed solely on an ethnic basis. In turn, the Minister is expected to ‘pay back’ by giving priority to those of his/her community. Over the passing years Goldtooth himself had done more than his fair bit. He got so many of his community jobs, taxi and market patents, promotions, priority on hospital lists, inside information about government tenders, trips abroad on invented missions, exemptions, religious licences, fake addresses for schools, import and export licences, etc... Indeed, why is a person appointed Minister in the first instance if not for serving his group? In what way is communalism worse than patriotism? Is it not a virtue to serve your kind?
Such an Elysian picture is being spoilt by the outbreak of ethnic blindness, for Paradise Islanders are becoming incapable of recognising their kind, electing them, and offering them particular advantages. It is a most dire state of things. To make matters worse, as the waters rise and threaten to cover the entire Paradise Island, some people’s concerns are moving away from divisions, and focusing on the collective and the pragmatic everyday. Fortunately, most are still very ethnic conscious. There is hope yet for Silver.
Goldtooth signifies to his son that he will get him to meet members of his current party the very next day to discuss his immediate political future.
Silver is very excited. This is the University he has been waiting for – the University of Experience, the University of Real Life, in the shape of his father. That night is a blessed night, the night of a near-holy spirit of understanding between father and son. Both Gold and Silver sleep contentedly under the same Tin roof. That night, consistently, the sea around Paradise gains an extra two centimetres over land.
But all is not well for long in the Gold household. Silver does not know that he will fall in love yet. The girl he will love bears a strange name. The girl’s name spells Trouble, with a capital “T”. This is because she was an unwanted child, born to a society hostess. Need one add that Trouble belongs to a different ethnic group?
USUAL YET ORIGINAL SIN
Silver encounters Trouble for the first time three months after his father’s warning. It is at a party at the Bluebeards.
Bluebeard the Patriot is Goldtooth’s childhood friend. He is called the patriot because he has married four wives, one from each of the main communities of Paradise. Bluebeard the Patriot is not just a patriot, he is an egalitarian at heart – for he mistreats each of his wives equally.
Imagine the chaos ethnic blindness might bring to a family like Bluebeard’s!
Bluebeard Jr. is Bluebeard the Patriot’s son. Objecting to his father’s polygamy, he has a wife and three mistresses instead, in fact each from a main community. But we will not call him a patriot since his sexual activities with the three are sanctioned by neither god nor country. At the time, Bluebeard Jr. is having a casual flirt with Trouble. Instead, as soon as they are introduced, right away, there and then, Silver is deep into Trouble, or to use a topical expression in those days of waters rising, he is neck-high in Trouble.
In our piece, Bluebeard the First plays the unwitting and unlikely (he looks more like Father Christmas) Cupid. Vulture-eyed, he spots Silver and Trouble in deep animated conversation through most of the evening. Unafraid of the mixed metaphor, he swoops in to intercept with the fabled grace of a flying warthog.
“Silver, my son, can I talk to you? I mean, privately?”
Nudge-nudge wink-wink, an adult and male version of “cross my heart and hope to die”:
“Of course, sir.”
“You know, Trouble is my wife’s cousin.”
Which wife’s cousin, now? From which ethnic group? “Aah! Yes, sir!”
Trouble is still within earshot. So, Silver suggests to Bluebeard that they take a walk. Thankfully, for the man suddenly started to sing to him:
Trouble clearly isn’t upper crust.
A tender heart’s thrust
You never must trust.
Have easy girls if you must
To satisfy your lust.
Your career might go bust
Don’t reduce it all to dust!”
Now, Silver, the country’s most eligible Bachelor of Arts, is a matchmaker’s dream come true, so there is no dearth of marriage proposals coming his way. But, such a specific warning from Bluebeard cannot but make Trouble that much more interesting to Silver than girls he has a passing interest in. Such is, often, the Formula for Love.
So, while Bluebeard is thinking how Goldtooth owes him one, he in fact owes him one big punch up the bracket, or up any other lesser punctuation-mark. For, by the end of the night, Silver is determined: this is the woman for him. Against society and against ridiculous paters and maters.
It is a year later, and they are still together.
One silvery moonlit night, lying in the grass after some hot lovemaking in a clearing in the woods, feeling like the only people on Earth, like Adam and Eve, they wonder about the future:
“You will leave me once you’re Minister, won’t you?” “You are too serious Trouble!” He kisses her to stop Trouble. “Not until you are batty and old, Trouble. Yet, even then, I’ll reconsider!”
He giggles and buries his head between her breasts and forgets it all as he drifts into deep sleep. Her eyes are open, watching the flowers fall from the trees above with a frown.
Meanwhile, with his father, Silver is behaving perfectly. He is frequenting the right people and has followed his father’s footsteps in his current political party.
DOUBLE TROUBLE IN PARADISE
It is bound to happen on the small island of Paradise: people gossip all the time – all to do with boredom. Also, on a small island is a concentration of susceptibilities, petty envy and back-biting. Despite the waters rising. Meanwhile, in such a restless context, Silver is fishing in troubled waters.
Anon, an anonymous letter does the deed, what’s done cannot be undone, what to do? Fairly foul, the letter proposes answers to equivocal three whiches raised: which politician met which woman in which place?
A copy arrives for Silver. That night, a very nervous Silver decides it is time to inform his father of Trouble’s existence before any of it splashes onto the family name.
He is taken aback when Goldtooth informs him that he already knows. Moreso when he declares he has no objections to the ethnic difference.
“Do you think I will allow my boy to go out with a girl unsupervised? I even met with Trouble’s mother. We both agree some fun will do both of you a lot of good...”
“So, you have me followed?”
“Learn, my boy, learn! It is better to be informed than not to be.”
“This is all a learning curve.”
“The fact is: I love Trouble!”
“Ah! Love! Been there myself many times! It will pass. Make sure you don’t get involved with Trouble again. It might be better.”
He agrees not to seek Trouble again.
When informed about the decision, over the phone, by Silver, she tells him she was expecting this.
“Huh!” she says to Silver, “When it comes to love and politics, we seem ready to follow Daddy’s footsteps, don’t we?” Predictably, no good humour here.
Elections come and go. As sure as clockwork, Goldtooth’s elected party is elected. As sure as clockwork, he becomes Minister of Paper Clips, Pins & Related Affairs. But this time, his son, Silver, becomes Minister of Wood & Other Inedible Stuff, a ministry created for him, admittedly a lesser ministry than the Ministry of Paper Clips, Pins & Related Affairs, carrying a smaller budget, but what a solid start! Few moments in the lives of few men can match Goldtooth’s pride as he welcomes his only son into the Most August Parliament (so-called since Parliamentarians only work that one month at most).
One evening many months later, after a prolonged session of dinner and boozing, Silver decides to sleep it out at Goldtooth’s bungalow by the receding coastline.
As he walks in, first Silver finds half-eaten Chinese takeaway boxes on the table. Intrigued, he walks into the sitting-room. Suddenly, Silver catches sight of Goldtooth whispering sweet-and- sour nothings to some lady tarted up and varnished like a Peking duck (whole, unsliced – Item 96). The tip of her panty-hosed foot is stroking his socked ankle, for some rather elaborate footwear love. Sadly, they are not wearing much more than footwear.
The varnished rouged lady is truly lipstuck and lipstruck to be caught thus by Gold’s son. Silver can only point and point a finger at this, the Emperor, one of the Fathers of the Nation, thus caught, with no clothes on.
“Et tu, Pater? And to your own sperm?”
For the painted lady, undressed to the nines, is no less than Trouble.
Outside, the waters are rising in gurgles and with a flushing sound; Paradise Island is being covered steadily, relentlessly. The Islanders are up a certain creek without a paddle, so they use their hands instead.
Previously published in Jungfrau: A Selection of Works from the Caine Prize for African Writing (The Caine Prize for African Writing 7th Annual Collection, Blackwell: Oxford, 2007) and Connotations — The Island Institute Journal (Fall 2011, Sitka, Alaska, USA).
HSBC/SA PEN Award, as selected by J.M. Coetzee. He has been, since 2005, an invited member of South African PEN. In 2010, he was made writer-in-residence first by the US State Department at the University of Iowa, then by the Island Institute, Alaska. He was made an Honorary Fellow in Writing of the University of Iowa. His writing has appeared in various anthologies, including Farafina (Nigeria), the Caine Prize for African Writing, and Connotations (Alaska) and has edited/prefaced/launched works by Mauritian writers Lindsey Collen, Joseph Tsang Mang Kin, and Shakuntala Hawoldar A former rower for his Cambridge University college, he speaks about a dozen languages and has lived in/visited many countries.
is Associate Professor [Ph.D] in Cultural Studies, teaching, especially film phenomenology, and founder / coordinator of the Research Group for Indian Oceanic Studies in the Humanities (REGIOSH) and of the Comparative Literature Research Group, at the University of Mauritius. He is member of a research projects for the Mellon-funded Oceanic Humanities for the Global South. His creative writing has won him Mauritian and international prizes, notably the first