Truly, Richard Ali has written a very important book.
City of Memories is an epic tale of love that cuts across religion, identity and political affiliations, what Richard Ali calls fault lines. The book is set chiefly in the fictional North Central State that sees the appearance of Jos, as well as the fictional Bolewa. It is an ambitious book.
The book opens with Faruk traveling to Bolewa—the city of memories—for self-discovery (back into history) after the love of his life, Rahila Pam broke up with him. There, he hopes to learn about himself, through the past of his mother, Ummi al-Qassim, whom he never really knew. Back in Jos, the intense feud between Eunice Pam (Rahila Pam’s mother) and Ibrahim Dibarama (Faruk’s father), one, for being political enemies, and two, affiliated with different religions (the fact, according to Eunice Pam, that forbids the union of their children Faruk and Rahila) ignites what would set the country on a destruction course. This sets an interesting spectacle, and intense scenarios where love would have to triumph over faith, identity and political affiliations. This could have been just a simple tale of love, but Ali turns it into an intriguing tale, bringing to us harsh realities which we, as a nation, and as human beings are afraid to face. City of Memories has raised serious issues, striking us with the reality that we, first, need to know who we are, and then know that we make up the several different pieces that make the larger picture—Nigeria. In City of Memories, we see the mistrust that is the bane of our national unity. But then the reader understands, how we must unite, with our different unique identities, like a jigsaw puzzle, to form the whole picture.
Ali could not only tell us who we are; but also what we are. Here, Ali captures the undying Nigerian spirit. Listen to Faruk: “Rahila, if the Nigerian people are not intelligent enough to know what they want, they are resilient enough to survive what comes their way. Do whatever you want to do, project your sense of self first however you choose—FOR YOURSELF FIRST.” (p.93) Emphasis is mine! We are a great people, aren’t we? We are a nation full of people who could persevere, who could survive no matter what. And then one would wonder why these tremendous abilities can’t translate to what could propel us to becoming a better nation, rather falling into the unfortunate, unfavorable position of being a weakness that every single person of influence, power, position and wealth could exploit.
City of Memories is rich with history as the author serves us, once more, with accounts of the unforgettable civil war. But could the Biafran war have erupted from a love affair? The fictional version, as seen in the book started with Ummi al-Qassim, Faruk’s mother, before he was born, and what was his mother’s fate seem to befall Faruk, decades after. In City of Memories, we see how much more love could destroy than heal. Love breaded strife, hate, brought calamity, brought death. But here is what is interesting: Love is not for the fainthearted. Love is not for cowards. It is for those who are ready to protect what they feel for each other. I like Faruk’s confidence. I love his belief in what he had with Rahila. It was a powerful propelling force that kept reminding him that, one day, again, they would reunite. An interesting young man with high standards and principles that are hard to come by. Even in the arms of Maryam Bazza, Faruk could not forget; he could not, in the heat of passion, relegate the strong bond that could stand the destructive tentacles of differences between him and Rahila.
Other characters, too, are interesting in City of Memories. There is Ibrahim Dibarama, Faruk’s father, a war veteran and a fine, witty politician who does not want trouble but could face it head-on when one comes. Eunice Pam demonstrates to us how much even good causes could be overdone to set destruction paths. She has an admirable tenacious mind that has rather set her as a woman who would not accept defeat, as a woman who is averse to reason. Rahila is an admirable character, too, though I see her as not with real strong ideals that would back what she fights for. Perhaps that is why her conflict with her mother died quickly, and her activism, too.
Richard Ali has stamped his name big as one of the most promising young writers to emerge from the North, writing about it. In Richard Ali’s City of Memories, you see the North. He paints it well with vivid descriptions, a good amount of local dialect and interesting characters. Ali writes well, and beautifully, too. “The highway started up a sudden rise so Faruk downshifted his gears, his mind running over the events of the last days along with the wheels of his Toyota as it labored up the steep incline.” (p.12) Sweet line. In Richard Ali, I see a bit of Habila, and that is interesting, because Helon Habila is one whose writing I have greatly enjoyed.
So did City of Memories measure up to the hype?
The book did not disappoint, but it is not without its fallings. City of Memories is too serious a book. It appears contrived that there are no dull or people of average intellectual capabilities in the book. Every character exhibits high level of intellectualism and excessive knowledgeableness. In its entirety, the book is with a complete lack of sense of humor.
Flashback is overused in the book, some places, appearing almost inappropriately. Times also mix up in the book. Based on accounts by some of the characters, the book is easily understood to be set in the nineties, yet events so fresh to mind and 21st Century items like the LCD screen are seen appearing in the narration. Toward the ending of the book, Faruk is seen reading Unbridled, published in 2007—It becomes obvious, Richard Ali’s strenuous attempts to be grateful to the author, Jude Dibia.
Also, Richard Ali tried too hard to give every character a description so that he tells us vividly about the height, attire and complexion of even a passerby, what then has become overly used symbolism. Can you tell one has an “olive skin” (p.106) from the insufficient inner lights of a car, that we are not even told was on? There are several of these that do not benefit the plot.
A professional editor and better research would have saved the book most of its fallings. Most events recorded in the book seem to come chiefly from personal opinions, making the history that is the core of the book too oral. Spelling mistakes, in a book of such richness, are unforgivable. We have the designer outfit “Chanel” misspelled as “Channel” (p.134). There are also numerous punctuation issues in the book, especially with the dialogue. It puts one off. These are not typos, and they are not deliberate attempts from Mr. Ali or the editor to try to create a new form of punctuation. The rules of punctuation, especially, in writing dialogue remains, and would remain the same.
Maybe Richard Ali would have given us a bit of action because he built the tension for the riot so well only for us not to witness a riot we had watched it brew. The author rather turns to newspaper headlines to report the impact of the riot. This robs the reader of action she’d prepared to witness. It is a disappointment.
On the whole, City of Memories is a unique book about a topic so huge we can’t afford not to consider. And Richard Ali himself is one brilliant emerging writer to watch out for; that is without doubts!
Kurannen Baaki is the author of the novella, The Quest, and a forthcoming novel, On the Run.