Tales from the city of memories
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
The writer Richard Ali has a debut novel out, City of Memories. A digital native and an Internet warrior, Ali is a leader of a pack of young Turks actively promoting African literature on the Internet. A renaissance man, armed with a law degree and a way with words, he is currently the editor of the online magazine Sentinel Literary Movement of Nigeria. He also recently teamed up with friends to establish a publishing house in Nigeria, Parrésia Publishers Limited, also the publisher of his book. I love his poetry; it is new, different and politely divorced from the poetry of protest, anguish and despair that used to be the hallmark of postcolonial African poetry. Ali is also a passionate youth activist, most notably one of the leaders of the highly successful but short-lived #OccupyNigeria that in January confronted the Nigerian government over its decision to eliminate the fuel subsidy and raise fuel prices.
Ali is the face of a generation of feisty writers that I admire immensely. I applaud their ingenuity and can do industry. For they are doing for African literature what the West did for the older generation – they are building their craft and their own publishing industry. The older generation had Heinemann and Fontana publishing houses. These writers have nothing but themselves and that wild frontier called the Internet. They are insistent on a mission whose mystery is beyond their understanding, the need to tell a story. Overall, Nigerian writers in the Diaspora have been good for Nigerian literature, pushing our stories beyond frontiers that were once unassailable. However, Ali’s book reminds me why I enjoy reading Made-Inside-Nigeria Nigerian literature. The language is distinctly homegrown and you can almost taste and feel every page, there is nothing like a home-cooked story. The tenderness is indigenous, not contrived. Ali excels at dialogue the way you would imagine two people actually conversing; the conversations between the lovers Rahila and Faruk are sensual and convincing.
With City of Memories, Richard Ali has established himself as perhaps the most important Nigerian writer at home or in the Diaspora writing about Nigeria from a Northern perspective, bar none. We have not had a Nigerian write about the North with such passion and intellect as Ali. Not since Cyprian Ekwensi. Ali demonstrates a good mastery of prose, employing nuanced turns of phrases.
“Long stretches of road were poorly maintained and every now and then the highway broke up into vague stretches that threw up geysers of dust the minute the tyres touched them. On both sides of the road, dry savannah bore the intense heat without bursting into flames. Yet there were nomads all along the way in the heat, herding more cattle than he had ever seen.” (p 10
The book is mostly pretty prose-poetry, time periods swapping themselves in and out of the reader’s consciousness. It is confusing at first but the reader gets used to it. Ali is good when there is no fancy footwork with the dialogue, when the language does not get in the way. He endows the reader with prose so dreamy and lyrical you forget that no one thinks and talks like that in today’s Nigeria where the dollar is the only ideology and deity in a political climate of pretend opposition. Here are my favorite lines:
“It was the very worst time of the year: November. In Bolewa, it was a time of wailing harmattan winds, blowing dust and dryness from the Sahara, which lay not two hundred kilometres away. Everywhere, the sparse grassland was being set afire and bare-chested young boys made game of the scurrying grasscutters and rodents. It was very cold. In the old calendar, it was called the month of Flames. For fire ruled side-by-side with the dry, Northwestern winds. At night, there was a cold chill and you could find no one in the streets if they could help it. If you looked hard enough, you could see Mr. Cold raging personally, menacingly, towards you, bristling and blowing his disdain across the fields. It was at such a time that Usman left me.” (p 71)
So, what is City of Memories all about? The book’s blurb says it all:
“City of Memories follows four characters [the lovers Faruk Ibrahim Rahila Pam, and the political adversaries Ibrahim Dibarama and Eunice Pam] negotiating the effect of various traumas. Towering above them is the story of Ummi Al-Qassim, a princess of Bolewa, and the feud that attended her love – first for a nobleman, then for a poet – a feud that bequeaths her with madness and death. All four are bracketed by the modern city of Jos in Central Nigeria, where political supremacy and perverse parental love become motives for an ethno-religious eruption. A thwarted love affair forces Faruk to flee to the Northeastern village of Bolewa, from where his parents emigrated three decades earlier. There, he unearths his mother’s tragic past and discovers the key that just might keep his country one – if he can make it back to Central Nigeria alive.”
There is plenty to like about the book. Ali does not waste his (and our) time on a gazillion characters; he invests his energies on a few well-built characters. He makes the point now universally known that the North is not monolithic, and he dissects the ethnic tensions and flare-ups between the Hausa and the indigenes in the North Central region. The book, Chapter 3 in particular, is a very thoughtful treatise on individual and communal identity. There are nice sections on campus life as Ali records the hell that is university education. The letters between Faruk and Rahila are adorable; they alone are worth the price of the book.
Ali tries and mostly succeeds to impress the reader as well read and deeply introspective. The beauty of the book’s prose however is often ruined by Ali’s desire to be seen as cerebral. The striving to be erudite grates like nails on a blackboard. All these alien influences and the contrived grandiloquence of the language give the book a phony feel. Ali has had more than his fair fill of Khalil Gibran, Friedrich Nietzsche and he is eager to share. One almost wearies of all these moody intellectuals roaming Nigeria muttering to the beat of Miles Davis’ 1959 Kind of Blue album.
The weaving in and out of time periods is awkwardly executed but it keeps the story alive. Ali is too self-conscious of his otherness; italicizing indigenous words. It would have been more helpful to provide a glossary at the end of the book. Many African writers are incredibly well read and worldly. I do wonder if they ever read other African writers. They quote Western thinkers with glee. To Ali’s credit, in the book, at the tail end, Faruk the protagonist is reading Jude Dibia’s book Unbridled. It was amateurish, Faruk couldn’t have read the book since it was published in 2007 and the book is set in the eighties and nineties. The reflections on feminism were not convincing although it is a nice quantum leap from the near misogynic indifference of the Soyinka and Achebe era.
A professional editor would have helped the book immensely, like many books published in Nigeria, the book is plagued by some editorial issues. The book’s plot seemed elaborately contrived but inchoate; it is not as elegant as his prose, the conflict is forced and the resulting conflagration seems out of proportion to the alleged crime. Also the book suffers a problem in many contemporary Nigerian works: Over-wrought self-absorbed hand-wringing by idealistic protagonists. Whole sections appear to be long running personal opinions wrapped in the gele of fiction.
Ali demonstrates a good grasp of oral history but how reliable is the narrative? Given the range of the numerous subjects he touched on it would have been useful to include references and a glossary. On the whole, the research was sloppy. As far as I can tell, the book is set in the 80s and 90s. However, early in the book, on page 77, there is a “lemon colored” Apple iMac. This is highly improbable since the first iMac was released in 1998, in just one color – blue. On page 70, Bolewa’s population was 80,000; however on page 82, it was a hundred thousand. There is a large LCD television in the book (p 184). That would be highly improbable in the 90s. These are all editorial issues that could have been addressed by a professional editor.
The main protagonists are idealistic to the point of irrationality, what some would call an unrealistic moral absolutism. In that sense, the book is hewn from the Soyinka and Achebe tradition, starry eyed idealists complaining about everything and proceeding to out-do their oppressors once it is their turn to be oppressors. It is plausible though; the 90s housed the last of these idealists. They fled the dictator Sani Abacha and now live abroad where they write angry essays excoriating Nigeria. Those left behind now suck Nigeria dry at the breast pumps. In them we are confronted with the hypocrisy of moral absolutism, the power of empty words.
The protagonist Ibrahim Dibarama a veteran officer of the Nigerian civil war is a walking bag of personal opinions. He is angry about the so-called Igbo coup of 1966 and ignores the equally bloody counter-coup organized by Northern soldiers. He lionizes the Northern leaders. And seems to rationalize what happened in 1966:
“There was a breakdown in communication across the north following the coup and before anyone could get anything together, the myth of the Igbo coup had spread. Ironsi lacked guts, lacked vision, lacked everything, alienated everybody, could not impose his authority – and his wife didn’t help matters, promenading like a victor all over the place. Most of the political leaders simply folded their arms and let the first killings happen. And of course, we had yet another supreme egotist in Enugu seeking a place in history with a capital H. Well you know what happened after that.” (p 52)
[Tafawa] Balewa was a believer in the country. He saw the northern region as a company of complementary people who could come together for mutual benefit. And it was the same way he saw Nigeria. Of all the Northern leaders, he was the most unafraid of the Southerners.” (p 51)
The character Hassan Abba in charge of Murtala Mohammed’s troops that carried out the ethnic cleansing in Asaba tries to confront the massacre but appears to be offering apologies and excuses at the same time. However, Murtala Mohammed is accurately depicted as a deadly Don Quixote:
“When I arrived on the 22nd, all I met were vultures and Biafran corpses, civilians. Henry, my handpicked battalion leader, what was he doing? Shooting Mid-Western civilians! It was a mess. A mess! Corpses all over the place. It was criminal. I reimposed a curfew. That, that was Barbaria right in the centre of my country – Sir Tafawa Balewa’s dreamed of country. I imagined a race of evil djinns had run rampant. Ah Hassan, it was just a mess. Some of the finest soldiers – yet, war had turned them mad. Whatever the rhetoric, I damned Murtala; nothing, no revenge, was worth what I saw that day. But who would believe me? And yet some at Supreme HQ honoured me for that fiasco. I am a soldier all that was unnecessary.” (p 60)
This is interesting considering that the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Two Division of the Army during the civil war, Major General Ibrahim Haruna said recently that he had no regret for his troops’ massacre of over 500 males in Asaba.
We are different people, separated by the blasts of the muezzin and the relentless thumping of Pastor Joe’s bible. However, the turbulent 60s was a time of fixed physical boundaries and homogenous groups glaring at each other. That provided the context then for the divisions at the time. Today history repeats itself for different reasons. I look to Ali and others to continue the debate and to offer innovative ways forward. Finally, let me observe that what limits most African literature is the monotony of its range. The “fiction” is actually a collection of observations and strongly held opinions about certain social conditions. It is a convenient foil and cop out; an author accused of bias points out coyly that the book is, well, fiction. But then, is the reader fooled? As an aside, I do think Nigerian male writers take themselves way too seriously. Sex rarely happens in their books. They must have arrived this earth by Immaculate Conception. Well, I learned a new dish – balangu Google it