Do not forgive me, I am nuanced. For to write a short review of a friend/publisher/editor/colleague’s book is to traffic in subjective subtleties; the kind that, incidentally, populates City of Memories, Richard Ali’s new novel and first book.
I am thinking of courage. “Some books are acts of courage,” writes the Washington Post in response to Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. If in the final analysis, we wish to find a word to describe City of Memories, let it be ‘courage’. Let it be the incrassated feeling that comes from reading a book courageous enough to wear its conviction as a band.
This conviction is rooted in a fierce tale of love and loving and being in love – love that overreaches itself, because it is soaked in the murky waters of conflict. A love affair that ends ‘happily ever after.’ Only that, this time, the sorrows borne by the lovers, the livid questions they ask, the starless sparkle of their experience, is difficult to dismiss.
I love you, but I cannot love you (p. 130)
It is as simple as it gets – Faruk Ibrahim is in love with Rahila Pam, and the parents of both lovers are sworn political enemies. What I find too capsulated is the violence Mrs Pam engineers because of her opposition to Alhaji Ibrahim, and her love for her daughter. But I believe this is the endearing ambitiousness of City of Memories, defining nationalistic concerns through otherwise myopic lenses.
Faruk and Rahila’s love is dangerous, perhaps a compromise, because it tethers itself with the question of identity. Identity as a tool or burden, as a formula, as a generic classification, as a sense of history, as a sense of self. What is love’s business with identity? What is distinctly fascinating about Faruk’s journey to Bolewa – the city of memories – to interrogate his identity, and thus, his love? How courageous can a novelist get; tangling the otherwise emotional business of romance and needing with the overarching furore of pluralistic contemplations? Ah, haba, this is a politico-eros story, as must be seen.
But I would not dismiss City of Memory’s preoccupation with tangled identity – not yet. We see a questing unfold in Rahila’s voice, persona, her idealistic aura. She invokes Nietzsche. “I saw my demon for the first time, and I have been running away from confronting it.” (p. 253) I tried, unsuccessfully, to hear the sound of her footsteps as she ran – it is, I think, Ali’s ploy to soak us in the beauty of language, of philosophic declarations, that we forget the loose ends that are tied up in other, less ambitious stories. I came to the end of the book looking for a grander resolution, one that lived up to ungraspable possibilities. But what is chiselled into the narrative is the dreamy idealism of triumphant lovers, do-gooders, and nationalists; a task that the author finds more endearing than long-ranging imagination. In this he is certainly closer to Habila than to Okri.
Perhaps memory can be reconstructed? “I’m trying to reconstruct the life of my mother,” Faruk says; he is a young love-struck man who has travelled to the city of his parent’s youth to uncover the tragedy of their lives. I am trying to understand the implications, and parameters, of questing. I am trying to understand what makes it apposite, even wholesomely indulgent, to contemplate the deep recesses of the past. I am trying to understand what is mesmeric about completeness – about the desire to understand fully. At least, City of Memories, did not fix me on this spot of complexity. Perhaps it was Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon, which I have also made the backdrop of a chapter in my forthcoming novel. What City of Memories did was to further make me wonder-lust in the complications of questioning memory.
For, indeed, as Faruk declares in a conversation, (p. 148), in response to Abdulkabir Bazza who says “there’s no use exhuming the past,” “…I cannot live with incompleteness.” Can I propose this question to everyone else – can you, yes you, live with incompleteness?
A book that sets us up for conviction, fearlessly bashing us with the sharp bits of the author’s queries should, in different circumstances, be banned. If our world had lapsed into free-spiritedness – if our country, especially such a country as ours, was secular in the true sense of the word, we would scarcely find space on our shelves for books that makes religion a pawn in a love story. This is why, and only why, we can accept such statements as “history is convenient truth.” (p. 277) – Because when we will tell the story of this decade, we will tell subtle reformulations of our past, and it will become convenient truth, history told so that our sense of dignity is retained.
Did Ali struggle to do this? Did he sketch a narrative tapestry that sought to create a past that could be reformulated, remixed, retold for the convenience of, for example, Eunice Pam, Rahila’s mother? This woman, who was, unfortunately, the villain of the tale, responded to her past as the fact of maltreatment, unforgivable political antagonism.
Kai, let me attempt simpler concerns. I like this book, I like this book, I like this book. It speaks to me of a different generation of Nigerian writers, a generation I hope I can be numbered amongst – one which tackles the intelligence, nay extelligence, of our beleaguered national experience. Do not speak to us about stories that cannot be told. Speak to us instead of being witnesses – for in our eyes love happens in the same street there was a bomblast, and once in a while, we’re in love with a man from the Northeast whose cousin is alleged to have dined with our (in)famous national hero, Abdulmuttalab.
I like this book because it does not care about the difference between a love story and a political story. It does not compartmentalize between the lingering question of identity and the blot in an inter-ethnic, inter-religious romance. It is landscaped with declarative statements about God, religion, love, history, memory, truth, Jos, Biafra, women, fate (this, of all things!), misogyny…And I like this book because it is a fine attempt to witness and step up to collective memory. It is as much about a triumphant love affair as it is about a nation at the brink of collapse.
At once an outcry, a protest, a speculation, a celebration, a prayer, an act of courage.
At once a book that should be reread.
Emmanuel Iduma is the author of Farad, a novel.