‘A Tale of One City’: A Missing Historical Site Narratively Restored

A look at al-Hassan Bakri’s most recent novel, A Tale of One City:

By Nassir al-Sayeid al-Nour

Al-Hassan Bakri is a Sudanese academic and acclaimed novelist, winner of the prestigious Tayeb Salih Award for the Novel in 2003. He has written a number of novels, including The Conditions of a Veteran Warrior, The People of the Highlands, Hot Weather, and Binge of Seduction. His literary contributions range from novels to political essays to public dialogue inside and outside Sudan.

His most recent novel A Tale of One City حكاية مدينة واحدةwas published this year in Cairo by Alain Publishing. It weaves together historic events and mythical interpretations. The novel’s polyphonic narrative space is vast, encompassing the development of historical events and characters. The novel is led by a central narrator who once lived in Soba, an ancient city that was part of the late Christian Kingdom of Alawa, in what’s now central Sudan. It collapsed during the sixteenth century.

History, here, is told through the lives of ordinary people. The narrative distills the imagined history and geography, mapping a space where history and legend meet. The fearless hero Sindiki meets his beloved Shahindah before the warrior who organizes an army to re-invade the City of Soba.

The events, based around an image-oriented narrative structure, are intensified by these images. And through various narrative upheavals, the characters’ positions are determined.

The City of Soba is often mentioned as a precise location, amongst its neighbors, giving it both narrative and symbolic significance. The novel connects historical facts, linguistic markers, and citations as intertexts and traces a wide space of anthropological and historical materials.

It does use the past to project criticisms onto our current reality, yet such critique is not the novel’s central mission. Instead, the novel centrally inscribes human contradictions, as represented by the characters’ actions through war, violence, and the unending ambitious of its narrator.

Bakri’s novelistic project has focused mainly on human tragedy and ontological anthropology’s unanswered questions, with his works exploring the deepest darkness within human nature. Interestingly, this novel has an open ending, with several possibilities, like a number of other classic works that examine the relationship between its characters and their unavoidable destinies.

Nassir al-Sayeid al-Nour is a Sudanese author and critic.

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