Sunday, 25 March 2007

The Good and the Ugly

Finally, I have brought myself to reviewing Maryam Ali Ali's novel ('The Faces of Naira') after a long time of her waiting for me to do it. I entitled it "The Good and the Ugly" because that what I think summarises the plot. The review will be published on Tuesday on Frontline, my newly formed newspaper (more on this later!). Meanwhile, here goes:

The Faces of Naira, a novel by Maryam Ali Ali, published by NNI Publishers Limited, Ilorin, Kwara State, 2006, 99 pp.

By Ibrahim Sheme

Four young friends decided to stop their layabout life and give their lives a sense of direction. They came up with an ingenious idea: each should leave town on the same day, go into the world and try to become rich, and then return after ten years to an appointed rendezvous outside the town at an appointed time and date in order to see what each had become in life.

The young men – Shu’aib, Tijjani, Imran and Alhassan – vowed to adhere to the arrangement. Thus they left their city and went in search of wealth. Imran and Alhassan went together, while the others went separately. None knew where he was going, but each was drawn to his destiny, which he seemed unable to control. Tijjani got a hike in a truck and ended up joining a criminals’ gang in which the truck driver was a member. The four hoods in the gang received him warmly, especially the boss, Jimina, who liked the young man’s gregariousness.

When Tijjani came up with the idea that the gang should try and live a normal way of life while perpetrating its criminal activities, Jimina agreed. Tijjani, however, swindled the boss of all his money, a whopping N80 million. He ran away to another city with the loot, with the connivance of unscrupolous bank managers. He changed his name and other forms of identity. The world was at his feet to enjoy.

Shu’aib was the other character consumed by materialism and desire to make money at all cost. At first, he found a decent job as shop assistant in the city that he went to. However, he met a wealthy man, Alhaji Ya’u, who introduced him into a secret watering hole where the affluent lived a hedonistic life.

Shu’aib’s curiosity and greed led him to press Alhaji to introduce him to sources of incredible wealth. Assured of the young man’s commitment, Alhaji Ya’u took him to a dark house where a mysterious old man headed an evil secret cult. It is here that Shu’aib was fed the philosophy of wealth-making, which involved dark rites and murder. Alhaji Ya’u informed him (p. 35 - 36), "Most of the time it’s the face of the naira that does the trick. The power of money, when it speaks, everyone listens. Even in our own mother’s sight, you are the best if you can speak the language of money. You’ll be regarded as the eldest, though you may be the last born and your word is final. And for that, for power and for glory, we do all this. For the three irresistible things in life: wealth, power and women. For these three, we do this and we do that."

Therein lies the fulcrum of the novel’s message. Even though this should sound as a warning to anyone bothered about morality, Shu’aib’s greed blinded him into following the dark path. Eventually, he murdered a girl he knew, at the behest of the cult, and she was sacrificed for the "prince of evil." For his reward, Shu’aib became stupendously wealthy. He married a graduate and they had a son. For nine years and five months, he enjoyed whatever good things life could offer and awaited the appointed date with his childhood friends.

The tie seems to be evenly divided between good and evil. The other two young men, Imran and Alhassan, represented goodness in this gripping tale. After leaving their hometown, the duo started as porters in a garage, after being introduced to the head porter by the Sarkin Tasha. They started life from a scratch, therefore, with firm commitment to go all the way up. They engaged in several menial jobs: car wash, filling of potholes, driver’s apprenticeship, etc. In a spirit of modern day company building (the fabled "grass to grace" success), they persevered. Their business expanded into refuse disposal, dairy and poultry farming. Imran was able to marry a beautiful girl from a good background, as opposed to the one Tijjani got through a matchmaker. And as fate would have it, Alhassan inherited millions of naira and a chain of businesses from his uncle, who had swindled Alhassan’s father years back.

Meanwhile, the D-day was approaching fast. The four friends, wherever they were, prepared to travel back home. Nemesis, however, began to catch up with the dishonest and wicked ones. Shu’aib unintentionally ate a fried liver, which broke his vow to the cultists, who had warned him never to eat liver again. As a result, he lost his sanity and was sent to a psychiatry, where he was being tortured by images of his past misdeeds whenever he slept. Tijjani was found by his former gang, who came to extract their pound of flesh.

But in order to fulfil their promise, the four friends managed to travel back home. Shu’aib escaped from the hospital, and Tijjani was pursued by the gang. Only Imran and Alhassan went in peace. The four met at the crossroads and assessed the good things and the evil things each might have committed.

The novel is centred on the ancient theme of struggle between good and evil, personal will and predestination, as well as the evil of materialism. Maryam Ali Ali proves, with this, that another female voice is around on the scene of creative writing from the northern part of Nigeria. Zaynab Alkali and a few other women have made a mark on the scene. Maryam is here to score a niche for herself in the realm.

The Faces of Naira, the evidence of this, is however marred by typographical mistakes, ‘Nigerian English’ and other errors that a very good editor and publisher should have corrected. The book was based on an earlier Hausa version. It should have been better publicised.
Maryam, who hails from Kano, graduated from the University of Jos and is undergoing postgraduate studies at the Usmanu Danfodio University, Sokoto. She is a well known face at the meetings of Nigerian authors all over the country, whch she hardly misses.

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