BASS 2016: Mohammed Naseehu Ali, “Ravalushan” from Bomb #131

"Zongo Street" by Ruben Gozi, Tema, Ghana

“Zongo Street” by Ruben Gozi, Tema, Ghana

The music we heard on our radios that morning was nothing new to our ears; it was what the soldiers played whenever they make a coup. The brassy, instrumental military music had been playing since dawn, and every now and then a deep male voice interrupted with the same announcement: “Fellow countrymen and women. The New Ghana Proletariat Revolutionary Council, N.G.P.R.C., is now in full control of the Castle and the radio stations in all nine regional capitals. We advise everybody to remain calm and to stay tuned for a speech. By the Leader of the Revolution. At ten o’clock.”
It was the first time we had heard the word, and it sounded more serious than the coup d’état we were used to.

Story available online at Bomb magazine

I often don’t recognize the first person plural point of view; I just assume it’s singular and don’t realize the “I” never emerges. In fact, I’m not 100% sure there isn’t an “I” somewhere in this story, but I don’t think so. I think the town is the main character, and the story is about how the town changes during the Ravalushun, finally descending into a despair so dark, it can’t even be seen but only heard through perverse laughter.

Unlike the prior story, set in Nigeria but applicable to anywhere, this one is rooted firmly in Ghana by everything from religion to street names. Just as with the point of view, however, I didn’t catch on for a while (I never claimed to be the brightest bulb in the chandelier); I thought it might be some kind of Freedonia, the story a kind of Marx Brothers spotlight on the absurdity of freeing the land only to take it hostage (a theme we might pay close attention to in this time), of destroying the village in order to save it. I read it as dark satire, something like Catch-22 or, even more specifically, Stephen O’Connor’s short story, “Another Nice Mess” from just a few years ago. But I was wrong: according to the Contributor Note, it is based on Ali’s recollection, as a 9-year-old child, of a very real, very bloody 1979 coup.

“We seized power in order to give it back to you, the people,” the new leader continued, his voice awe-inspiring and uplifting…. Listening to his angry speech one could have sworn by the Quran that Sergeant Leader, the name we instantly gave the new head of state, was sent by Allah himself to rescue us. To lift up Zongo Street from its poverty, to give us the opportunities other tribes enjoyed, to buy some respect for us and all the common folks in this land. The speech lasted not more than six minutes and, before concluding, the Sergeant Leader explained that some anti-revolution soldiers were trying to stage a coup to counter his “Uprising,” and that in order to stabilize the situation, a six-to-six curfew had to be imposed nationwide, “Until further notice.”

It’s a nice community, with a Catholic school and a madrassa and kids who play together and a barbershop where querulous men argue politics and a merchant who might be considered rich but does not engender any hostility, a couple of harmless guys who are non compos mentis but are tolerated just fine. It was a nice community until it was freed, at which point initial celebration turned to fear turned to horror turned to survival instinct turned to something inhuman as an owl looks on.

3 responses to “BASS 2016: Mohammed Naseehu Ali, “Ravalushan” from Bomb #131

  1. Again, I’m astounded by my own bourgeois reaction to this story. I complain all the time that stories don’t take political issues head-on enough. Here’s one that does, and all I was thinking through the story was how there aren’t any characters I can anchor on, no specific human touchstone amid all the large-scale human misery. Have I become so inured to the white middle-class drama with its close eye on the quotidian that I can no longer appreciate a muscular, Marxist tale of state power gone wrong?

    I’m not sure. Something is just telling me this isn’t a great story. If it is, you’ve already picked out one of its striking characteristics: the nearly invisible “we.” It’s reminiscent of Orozco’s “Orientation”–none of the characters we care about are the person speaking or the one being spoken to.

    There are jolting images, sure. And like you, I wondered, with the introduction of “Sergeant Leader,” if this was some kind of Catch-22 satire. I thought maybe the townspeople would go on accepting the greatness of the revolution even after the reader knew better. I feel like this story is somehow caught between two things: it is almost great journalism/memoir, and almost great fiction. But it’s stuck between these, and so not actually great at either thing.

    • I’m relieved that my impression of satire wasn’t completely stupid.

      One of the things I most like about BASS and Pushcart is that they frequently push me out of my comfort zone, which, of course, is how one’s comfort zone often gets expanded. I also think there’s often an element of “what would you do” in these stories – in other-worlds science fiction stories as well – which usually comes down to, I have no idea, but even thinking about it is useful. And of course there’s the paradoxical twin branches of “we don’t know how good we have it” and “people are really alike all over.”

  2. Pingback: BASS 2016: Just What I Needed Right Now | A Just Recompense

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