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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

People of the City

Cyprian Ekwensi

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To purchase People of the City

Title: People of the City
Author: Cyprian Ekwensi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1954 (rev. 1963)
Length: 159 pages
Availability: People of the City - US
People of the City - UK
People of the City - Canada
directly from: New York Review Books
  • With an Introduction by Emmanuel Iduma

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Our Assessment:

B- : of some appeal and interest, but the story a bit rough and simple

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 29/10/1954 A.Calder-Marshall
TLS . 20/11/2021 Elnathan John

  From the Reviews:
  • "The author intends to show him undergoing a series of ordeals through his ignorance and attaining finally a degree of wisdom and the reward of love. (...) He does not succeed in tracing this development convincingly; but what he gives in a way that no one else has is a vivid picture of life in a West African city, seen from the point of view of an ambitious young African (matriculation standard), the prey to poverty even when in work." - Arthur Calder-Marshall, Times Literary Supplement

  • "One of Nigeria's pioneering English-language novelists, Ekwensi must be read as a product of his time. (...) Ekwensi captured what many of his generation viewed as the crisis of urbanization, as people moved to the city in a bid to improve their lot, shedding their innocence and struggling to stay afloat. (...) It seems a shame that Ekwensi chose to situate so much of the conflict between modernity and tradition in the bodies of women (and the gazes of men). A lot has changed since People of the City was written, and from today's vantage point it is easy to pick out the lapses in editing and plot structure as well as the crudeness of its depictions of women and its general moralizing. (...) (W)hile engaging, People of the City is nonetheless of questionable merit, regardless of its author's importance, and it is hard not to wonder which other Nigerian “classics” might have benefitted from a second life." - Elnathan John, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       People of the City -- originally published in 1954 and then in this revised version in 1963 -- is set in an unnamed West African country and city then still under British colonial rule. The bustling coastal metropolis where most of the story is set is clearly Lagos, in Nigeria; a mention of the slaughter of twenty-one striking, unarmed coal miners, as happened at Enugu in November, 1949, and a town council election that would result in the election of the first mayor of the city -- background action that figures some in the story -- dates the story to the late 1940s and 1950.
       The lure of the big city is a major theme in the novel, with its central character, the: "most colourful and eligible young bachelor, by name Amusa Sango" among those who couldn't resist the pull. When the novel opens, the twenty-six-year-old seems to be quite well-established. He has a position as a crime reporter for the West African Sensation, and he also leads a dance band, playing in a club in his spare time; he lives in relatively humble quarters, but he can afford a live-in servant. Although his mother has arranged for him to marry Elina, a country girl -- "a decent girl from a good family" --, she is stowed away in a rural convent for the time being, while Sango is very actively sowing his wild oats in the city. He remains ambitious: "determined to carve for itself a place of renown in this city of opportunities".
       Despite his apparent success, Sango is dissatisfied with how things are going, and restless:

Suddenly he felt angry at the way he was getting on in the city. Something must be done about it soon, for he was certain that the good things were eluding him. He was actually getting nowhere, come to think of it. He was still crime reporter, West African Sensation, and band-leader at the All Language Club. If that was status, then he must be sadly mistaken.
       Sango continue to make his way in the big city, but the arc of the novel is unusual in that it begins with the protagonist well-established and then has his holds fall away, one by one. Sango understands the ways of the big city -- unlike many of the naïve girls who come looking for their big break (almost inevitably in the form of a man who will support them) -- and is able to navigate life there quite confidently, and yet the seeming pillars of his life there crumble around him. A dispute with his landlord leads to him being evicted from his rooms and the club he plays at with his band is bought up, after which his services are no longer required there. Things seem to be looking up at the West African Sensation -- Sango is in line for an editorial position -- but, despite being: "a good journalist -- perhaps the most original in the city", he is fired when he writes an article about a shooting that hit close to home for him; despite reporting accurately, his story was seen as: "pitting one section of the community against the other" and was too much for those running the paper.
       Sango's straits never seem really desperate: though disappointed by these turns of events, and inconvenienced by them, he mostly just seems to shrug them off. He's embarrassed at having sunk so low, but there's little appreciable change to his lifestyle. Still, he becomes more obsessed than ever:
His motto had become money, money, money. This was the way people of the city realized themselves. Money.
       A weakness for women also haunts him throughout the novel -- especially in the form of Aina, who becomes obsessed with him. Try as he might, he can't entirely shake her off -- or her conniving mother, who repeatedly interferes in his life and the lives of some of those around him. There are other flings and flames -- two of them named Beatrice -- and there's that fiancée, who eventually also comes to visit the city, with her mother, and whom Sango finds: "had grown from the scraggy, timid girl he had seen in the Eastern Greens into a kind of 'poster girl'".
       Sango does figure out which woman he wants to be with, and winning her over becomes his priority; curiously, the novel's conclusion has him find that the only way he might achieve the success he has been seeking and be with the woman he loves is to abandon the city, at least for a while, and go elsewhere, to the Gold Coast. He realizes, apparently, that he is unable to achieve the kind of success he wants in the city:
We want a new life, new opportunities ... We want to live there for some time -- but only for some time ! We have our homeland here and must come back when we can answer your father's challenge ! When we have done something, become something !
       A constant concern for Sango is what his mother thinks, as he worries about disappointing her. Tellingly, he only really figures things out, and is able to take action, when she dies.
       Unfortunately, convenient deaths become much too much a part of the novel, as Ekwensi piles them up as the novel comes to its conclusion. The killing of a close friend who was desperately in love with a foreign girl whose family was planning to send her back to Syria even doubles as the reason Sango is fired from his newspaper position -- though the death-scene does give Ekwensi opportunity to indulge in some of his more colorful writing:
This was the final moment. The life was ebbing fast from him. The warmth glowed upwards but down below all feeling drained and faces of evil menace, void and empty, ricocheted with the night in a kaleidoscope of grimaces. Death has ceased to be a stranger.
       This, and many of the episodes, are a bit too simplistic. Much is also rushed, Ekwensi impatiently pressing forward as Sango apparently used to with women -- not least in casting them aside and forgetting about them after he's had his quick fun. In this sense Aina, who won't be cast off quite so easily, is a useful figure in the novel, constantly bobbing back up -- but, as with all the relationships, this one too feels underdeveloped and not sufficiently seen through. So also in the larger story, too little is properly fleshed out and fully seen through.
       Sango admits that: "I like freedom. Not too much politics. Not too much moral guidance". The politics of the time, a slow freeing from the British yoke, does figure in the novel, though Sango remains very much at the periphery of this. There are the Town Council elections, but Sango isn't as involved as other characters in these. So also, Ekwensi doesn't have Sango but rather another character observe:
But now things are different. Yes, things are gradually passing into African hands. Soon al the power will be in our hands. It's worth fighting for.
       Some urban issues are addressed as well, from crime -- Sango is a crime reporter, after all -- to the housing shortage, as Ekwenzi does present a solid urban portrait, including in several crowd scenes. (However, the police, repeatedly called to various scenes, always appear too unbelievably quickly -- the Lagos of those times might not have been nearly as crowded as it is now, but such efficient responsiveness still seems far too unlikely.)
       It's the uneven story that's a bit weaker. Too often, women are basically objects here, their roles inevitably defined by their relations to men. Sango does fall in love, but with all the juggling of all the women in his life it isn't entirely convincing; Ekwensi does passion reasonably well (though it tends to be quick and overheated) but romance less so.
       Money is always in short supply, but Sango is fairly free with it, even when he has little of it, and Ekwensi never completely convinces that money matters above all in this world; he and Sango never really seem to care that much about it, even as life in the city and, presumably, Sango realizing his dreams is difficult without more of it. Of course, Ekwensi never really shows what it is that Sango wants out of life; the character remains restless throughout.
       Early on, someone reminds Sango that the: "person who's not careful, the city will eat him !" Yet for all the hardship Sango endures, it doesn't even really feel like he gets chewed too badly -- though he does choose to essentially flee the city in the end. He feels comfortable enough there -- in no small part because his city life, as described here, is all easy comfort: "Jazz ... girls .... late hours" -- but he has difficult shaking his sense of dissatisfaction with this. It makes for an odd portrait, both of the (then) new African city and of a type, the young urban semi-professional of the day.
       There's enough to People of the City for it to be of interest -- indeed, one of the problems with the book is that there is so much scattered in it, too little of which is followed-up or presented in sufficient depth. Ekwensi's writing is uneven and often rough, but there's some impressive color to it too; even where the story sputters, the writing mostly carries it through.
       People of the City isn't solely of (literary-)historical interest, but it's a bit of a rough novel, in various respects, more curiosity than something to really seek out.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 April 2021

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People of the City: Reviews: Cyprian Ekwensi: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Nigerian author Cyprian Ekwensi lived 1921 to 2007.

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© 2021 the complete review

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