City of Rust and Gold, Dave Chukwuji, Words Rhymes and Rhythm Limited, 2017
The feeling the reader gets with City of Rust and Gold is déjà vu.
Then the reader gets angry that a practice so old, so forgotten can totally decimate people’s lives over and over again. This is the story of love not romance, it is the story of culture and yet not a way of life. The reader feels anger mixed with sadness, especially when one realizes that time and seasons have changed nothing about a cruel culture and when one finds that some people are doomed to repeat history, it becomes all the more frustrating!
These are the themes in Chukwuji’s novel, City of Rust and Gold!
It’s a story that begins slowly, weaving intricate patterns around the city of Ibadan. Like a skilled cloths maker, the writer begins by taking us around the tapestry of the University campus, one of the most notable sites in the city. Chukwuji then threads his way around the city with probing fingers like a lover searching the contours of his amore; Ibadan opens herself up but the Ibadan we encounter is not the Ibadan of today; it’s an older city of Ibadan; one that had seen coups and bloodshed, one that hadn’t been exposed to democracy; it is the Ibadan of the 1990s.
Chukwuji weaves the story into the tapestry of people’s lives around a city that is touted as the largest in West Africa. Ibadan comes alive in this story but really, Ibadan is also an accomplice, a city that failed to keep a deadly secret.
So what exactly is City of Rust and Gold about?
It’s a three-part story about a young man named Richard which leads us to as “why should we be interested in reading the story of an average Joe when there are so many Richards in our midst today?”
Richard is a mechanic, but he is no ordinary mechanic wearing grime splattered and tattered clothes; no; he is a mechanic who lives clean, doesn’t use swear words and can actually communicate in perfectly good English! He is a young man who seems to carry a cross too heavy to bear. From the very beginning he is portrayed as an outcast who has lived in Ibadan for five years and yet, the reader thinks he doesn’t belong there.
Osaro, Richard’s friend, who is a student at the university of Ibadan unwittingly reveals a bit about his friend Richard when he says of himself, “I’ve lived all my life believing in a thing, a person, an ideology, an institution, only to wake up suddenly to find out that what I believed in is a big blatant lie.”
This statement affirms the reader’s curiosity; Richard is living a lie! And indeed, there is something ominous brewing in the succeeding pages of City of Rust and Gold. However, Chukwuji continues to make us wait until the end of the first part of the story, just as the reader thinks finally, the secret behind this brooding young man is about to be revealed, the writer changes lanes.
Chukwuji teases the reader to continue reading into the second part of the story where the character changes names from Richard to Ndeoma. Again the writer doesn’t reveal much immediately; Ndeoma remains an outcast even in part two where we find him in his village. We see him longing to be a part of a people who do not want him. We see him asking questions, why am is he different from a father who would rather respond in proverbs than answer his son’s probing?
We hear his father’s thoughts thus; “He had always wanted to protect him from his people, those that will eventually hurt him because he was different. Just like the moon, Ndeoma dwelled among stars, yet he was so different and alone. He did not want the boy to suffer because of things he could never understand.”
Even this doesn’t tell us exactly why Ndeoma aka Richard is different; Chukwuji keeps us guessing; why is this guy an outcast? Maybe it is because he was perhaps born out of wedlock, maybe because…well the reader is forced to keep reading and pondering because the writer just won’t reveal much.
Finally, the reader unravels a tragedy so preventable and so senseless that there really isn’t anyone to blame but the gods and the society itself; a society that refuses to change despite civilization, despite the western values it has imbibed.
Anene’s words to his friend, Richard/Ndeoma, is instructive: “Ndeoma my friend, it is our society that’s needs sympathy, not you,”
Richard discovers he is someone he has been brought up to despise and like Odewale in the The Gods are not to blame, he has not run hard enough from the tragedy that was bound to befall him; and when he ran, he couldn’t hide, and though he tried to hide he didn’t hide deep enough! The certain fate that was to befall him sought him out and found him and dealt him the knocks it had planned for him from the very beginning!
A very interesting read; City of Rust and Gold takes the reader back to the 1990s; it reminds one of ancient relics like the use of cassettes to dub music ; it speaks glowingly about musicians that held sway back in the day; the likes of late Majek Fashek and Bob Marley; the writer also pays tributes to oldies like Kris Okotie, (how many remember he was once a musician?)
On the flip side; Chukwuji’s story is too winding, too historically driven to actually read as a romance novel. It tells the history of a people and their belief system and in doing these the writer seems more concerned with the historical rather than the fictional as if to validate the tragedy.
But these are people who hold on to belief even when this belief really has no basis in today’s reality, yet, this sort of tragedy can continually be expected because like Chinua Achebe said in Arrow of God, “A toad does not run in the day unless something is after it.”
Something was chasing Richard, and that thing, that something greater than him, catches up with him at the end.