Here's another unusual read from my days in South Africa. Finding Mr Madini is a collection of stories compiled by a main narrator. Published in 2000, this story follows the footsteps of several different homeless people. It's a weird little insight into the lives of poorer folk of this country.
The story itself is told by one character. The main protagonist (in this case, the main narrator) is Jonathan Misha Morgan and his words at the beginning sum up what this book is all about: “No one's homelessness is quite like anyone else's”. Thus, in order to explore this difference, he gathers a group of homeless folks for a project. Each character is required to talk about their lives and how they ended up living on the street. Sometimes one character tells two story, their own story and that of someone else. In this way, he ended up with a group whose stories were completely different from one another. You have Virginia, Fresew, Valentine and Steven, just to name a few. Each of them have a lot of tragedy in their past and yet, there was once hope for a better one. If nothing else, many told incidents that were far stranger than anything we would read in fictional stories.
For instance, Valentine tells harrowing stories of how his father robbed money vans. Virginia's fond memories of her grandmother is touching and yet within those stories are rather disturbing memories of her childhood. When she describes how her inoculation was messed up by local superstition, you feel immense amounts of sympathy for her younger self.
In addition to the content, the narrative style is noteworthy as well. In a way, it enhanced the content matter, making the readers feel as if they were glimpsing into someone's life. The main narrative frame is that of Morgan. These bit contain a little bit about his personal life as well as the ones dealing with the homeless workshop. When he is taking part in the latter, we get to see a narration within this narration as each of the participants take center stage to read out one of their stories. The main protagonist develops on this mode by asking each of the participant to describe the physical appearance of another in the crowd. Often these descriptions are accompanied by short stories of how each character met or visited the other's hang-out spot.
I can understand why Morgan employed this tactic; it has to be one of the most non-judgmental ways to handle each character. After all, a narrator who is disconnected from their lives would paint them in ways that are indicative of the narrator's own beliefs. Admittedly, the folks who end up reading a book detailing lives of homeless people might have their own preconceptions about these people. For this reason, having a 'window within a window' sort of system to tell a tale, preferably by the folks involved, seems like an excellent idea. That is not to say that the folks in the book got along brilliantly with one another. No, Morgan had to play mediator a few times. What came across from those exchanges was, again, that each person had well-defined personalities which in turn made them look all the more human.