With City of Memories, Richard Ali attempts to give traction to the largely inexplicable ethnic and religious violence in the North of Nigeria. He traces histories and traditions, and succeeds largely in showing the existing mistrust. However, if one would attempt to seek solutions from the novel, one would find little of practicable value, at least not one that does not already exist on the streets of Nigeria. In City of Memories, like in contemporary Northern Nigeria, a couple of disgruntled politicians seek to destroy the society with the hope that they will be left with the ashes to govern.
The novel opens with the promise of open savannahs, the weight of memories still fresh and bitter, and a quest for answers. It is a story of love, of conflict and the final triumph, not of love alone, but of light over darkness. City of Memories is about memories, and their recollections, for which the author utilised flashback as an effective tool. The story of City of Memories is simple and complex at the same time, with the author managing to weave a web of relationships across the landscape. The setting is present day Nigeria, or can easily pass for it, only under a new military dictatorship. The main character Faruk Dibarama, hopes to ease the pain of heartbreak by moving as far away as possible from the source of that heartbreak and the city that bore witness to that lost love’s rise and fall. Rahila Pam is the object of Faruk’s affections and the source of the danger that followed him to Bolewa, where he sought refuge and answers.
Bolewa, not Jos, is the city of memories. It was here that the history that shaped Ibrahim Dibaram, Faruk’s father and moral totem, occurred. In Bolewa too, lies answers to the questions Faruk had about his birth, his mother and his father’s role in the whole. It was in Bolewa that a tragic event occurred before Faruk’s birth, an event that is about to replay itself again, only on a grander, bloodier scale.
These two cities, Bolewa and Jos, are at the same time places of refuge and sources of anguish for the Dibarama clan. Bolewa first provided refuge for a disillusioned Ibrahim Dibarama, seeking healing from the scares of the civil war, and then later served as a place of recovery for his son, Faruk. Ibrahim running from strife stemming from scorned love, sought refuge in Jos from Bolewa. Faruk, also escaping from the consequence of a love abruptly severed, sought refuge in Bolewa from Jos. These parallels, though not mirrored situations, between the life of father and son are many in City of Memories. It is to the credit of the writer that he is able to show how much of his father’s son Faruk is and why his father holds him in high esteem.
Ummi al-Qassim, Faruk’s mother and Ibrahim’s wife, though dead, is an integral part of the story. Ummi’s life was a tragic one, a tragedy wrought by the fatale attraction two men had for her. Faruk, her son, who always wondered about his mother and with his father unwilling, or unable, to tell him her story, saw the trip to Bolewa as a chance to really know who the great woman that bore him was. It is another credit to the author that Faruk was able to see the parallel in his story and that of his parents, but not in time to really use it to effect. However, while he was not ready, his father, using the benefit of hindsight, was.
For Ibrahim Dibarama, the nemesis that hounded his marriage to Ummi Al-Qassim were his wife’s previous lovers, his son had to contend with the mother and brother of his girl.
Eunice Pam, Rahila’s mother, is an intellectual whose intelligence fades in the face of her seemingly inexplicable bloodlust. The fact that Ibrahim Dibarama had defeated her roundly in all their political contests, did not read like enough reason for her to attempt to set the country alight, but she did. Her son Musa, also takes out a contract on Faruk Dibarama, not for loving his sister, but for standing up to his bullying. Though Eunice Pam also paid to have Faruk killed, it was a means to an end, or so she said, for she must have hated him enough to want to see him dead.
Rahila Pam is one of the stronger characters in the story and the author comes alive when writing about her. The scene of her attacking her books in the second chapter was exquisitely done and should stay in the mind of the reader.
City of Memories was rather highly anticipated among Nigeria’s literary circles, perhaps on account of the authors visibility. Did he disappoint? I would say not really.
Perhaps because of Richard’s activism, I was looking forward to him breaking away from some outdated literary traditions such as italicising native words and keeping sex well away from the pages. It is funny, knowing Richard Ali, that the only sex scene in page 222, did not happen.
Then again, there was a constant attempt to gift intellectualism to all the major characters. It was as if the author was trying to pass a message along not too subtly, and that message is; “northerners are also very intellectual joor”. Or how do you explain Maryam, a secondary school girl in Bolewa who is besotted to Faruk, instantly recognising a line from Oscar Wilde? Forget about the fact that Faruk is said to quote from that sage all the time, there is no dull, average intelligence person, in City of Memories.
Then there is the use of flashbacks, while the purpose of flashbacks in a novel about understanding the past is well noted and perhaps indispensible, one could not help but feel it was a tad overused, especially towards the end.
In truth, there is other little not-all-there aspects in CoM but on the strength of it being an insight into inter-ethnic and inter-religious relationship in the north, the novel is on point.
While remaining with the theme of love, the author still painted the sectarian violence that has of late unhinged the presumed ethnic harmony of the north in very bright and insightful colours. Through the eyes of characters from various social classes, he tried to show what the average northerner thinks about religious and ethnic co-existence. Whether he failed or succeeded at this attempt should be left, for you, the readers to say.