When Titles Like To Be Too Poetic: On Season of Crimson Blossoms
TEJU Cole writes in his White-Saviour Industrial Complex essay, a side comment: as a novelist he “traffics in subtleties,” and his goal of writing a novel “is to leave the reader not knowing what to think.” Because “A good novel shouldn’t have a point.” By the end of 300-and-so pages, Adam Abubakar Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms has no point. Except that widowed Hajiya Binta Zubairu wakes up one morning to the smell of roaches (metaphor for premonition)—a sense of foreboding she has become familiar with, enforced by pain-full experiences in her past. This morning though, this sense will lead to her being reborn.
Her rebirth does not come by baptism but by Reza, notorious criminal and number one weed dealer of San Siro, who has connections with a Senator. Reza comes close to coital range with her when he breaks into the house to rob her. To stop her from screaming the places the blade of his knife softly on her throat and his frame looms over her rear, his arms crushes her breasts; he asks her to hush and demands for her money and gold.
Lemons turn to lemonades in the confrontation between the two as Hajiya Binta sees in Reza her son who was shot some twenty years ago by the police; and when she becomes the vehicle into Reza’s past of a mother he wanted when he was seven but was spurned by. More lemonades: Reza leaves after a show of affection when he brings out a handkerchief and dabs the blood from the cut his knife makes on Binta’s neck. As a result, it kindles in Binta a desire for warmth as one day she has a wet dream. Reza returns to her house another day and they are both lured to rumple the sheets on her bed. And a strange relationship full of eros is born.
This tale of Binta’s rebirth is like the two sides of a coin: sin and freedom. Paradoxically, in religion sin comes from freedom. And so the madrassa and the women who attend classes there are symbols of religion in the novel. Mallam Haruna who fails to woo Binta and make her his third wife is the society when he incidentally sees Binta leaving a hotel and becomes her watchdog. Although Binta tries to purify herself from sin by burning incense and bathing by the hour, religion, society, and her conscience conspire against her freedom. If there was a third side to a coin, Binta’s would be the fight against loss and the miserable attempt to rewrite the past.
She shares this last part of her coin with her niece, Fa’iza. Binta’s husband and son died in very uncolourful ways; her niece once watched as her father and brother were macheted in a religious crisis in Jos. Fa’iza fights against her loss by sketching often the face of her brother and by keeping a diary where she stores her secrets or memories. It is through Reza, through a platonic and twisted union, that Binta fights hers. Though the relationship is sexcapadic, Binta seeks the love and intimacy that she never had with her husband, and shows, to him, the compassion her late son never got from her. Abilities she thought she had long since lost, or perhaps never had.
Reza, miseducated, as we later glean from the novel, raises his hand to strike Binta in a confrontation but restrains himself. If he had, we read that “it would have broken not just her face and her pride, but her heart as well.” She tries to be resolute against his unchecked temperament but “… suddenly felt tired. Tired from being strong”’ In a second confrontation with Reza when Binta discovers that he is broken inside, she, to make up, tries to hug him which he resists but sooner gives in. “It was the first time their troubled hearts truly embraced, melting into each other. It was the first time his heart touched hers.” Here, we find Reza in his own kind of fight against loss.
But Adam Abubakar tells us through Binta that “There is nothing quite like fighting against loss and, despite one’s best efforts, losing all the time.” Binta’s niece Fa’iza, too, is coming from this same place. Then something visceral and heartrending happens when Fa’iza forgets what her brother’s face looks like and suffers a traumatic inertia. Niece and aunt come from the same past and city: Jos having claimed their loved ones and painted in their hearts a mural of pain and loss. When Fa’iza recovers days later, after Binta finds a photo of the girl’s brother and gives it to her, Binta tells her niece in a conversation:
‘I was wrong.’ Her voice echoed from a realm her mind had wandered to.
‘Wrong? About what?’
‘About you. I thought you were fighting against loss and losing.’
[. . .]
‘It was me.’ ‘I was the one fighting against loss all the while.’
IF Binta’s story is a tragedy, which it is, and she is the hero in it, she doesn’t meet her Waterloo at the point where the story appears to have climaxed, and the readers do not have their catharsis, when she loses her last son, Munkaila, who was hit on the back of the head with a retaliatory stick while chasing Reza round his mother’s house.
Threads run through the pieces that make up the story—Binta’s rebirth, Reza’s miseducation, Fa’iza, the madrassa, Mallam Haruna, San Siro, Jos, Senator and the kidnap job and politics—except at the hem. It leaves the reader not knowing what to think; it seems to have no denouement to speak of. Even the title of the novel confuses with its subtlety: we are left not knowing what to think, how or where in the novel to mine for the season of crimson blossoms.
Adam Abubakar’s novel instead chronicles a season of loss, which makes it a Nigerian story at its heart. It tells of the losses we have had, the losses which haunt us still, and the fight for liberation. Freedom comes eventually, for Binta and Reza, but it is pyrrhic freedom. Binta, 55, while trying to fight loss, is reborn when she starts a relationship with Reza, 25, which makes her discover layers of herself that had been hidden and gains belated wisdom when she loses her last son. Reza, already quite miseducated, then miseducated for a second time, is liberated from his miseduction by an ironic tale of love and a sad end. In the end it is Fa’iza who wholesomely recuperates as she is found painting in crimson an abstract painting; with each redemptive stroke, she paints away her pain and loss.
IF Season of Crimson Blossoms aspires to be the good novel that makes no point, it took the task a little too close to heart. At some point the story loses its weight before it gets to the punch—or is it point now?—that it has to make for some artistic unity not taken care of. One case study: The death of Binta’s last son, Munkaila, is an unlikely coincidence which makes for a contrived end to the story. Or the relationship between Reza and Binta. On the latter, whatever the story’s creed is, the question isn’t if the relationship should end—for, indeed, the story will then have no point—but where, rather, it goes. Partly indicative of a kind of romanticised dizziness the story plays with. Chiefly amongst, that Reza and Binta fighting against loss defeat their id by trying to reclaim in each other, family members from the past through a romantic fantasy.
This dizziness replays also that there are many short stories or story-lets flowing into the main story that is SOCB threatening to stand on their own, therefore threatening harmony. Unlike V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street where the short story chapters form a mosaic for the novel, SOCB is a cata-culmination of short stories. Dizzy at best. Such and more presented in a too poetic title that leaves the reader wondering: what did I just read?