Somalia: digging deep

This novel has been sitting on my to-read pile since January. It was one of the books that Steve and I picked out on a frenzied afternoon in New York City when the reality of what this project would involve was just sinking in. That day, we descended on indie bookshop McNally Jackson and, under the bewildered gaze of the staff, spent several hours rifling through the world-literature section and building big piles of possible prose works I could read from some of the most far-flung destinations on the map.

Several of the books I bought that holiday became blog posts earlier in the year, others were shuffled on to my ‘2013-and-beyond’ pile when more intriguing recommendations came in, and yet others still sit biding their time on one of the many heaps of undecided books dotted around our living room as I write. In fact, when I picked up Nuruddin Farah’s Secrets the other week, I couldn’t remember anything about it. It was only when I cast an eye over the blurb that the reason the book appealed to me that blundering January day came flooding back.

Having been exiled from Somalia since the 1970s, multi-award-winning author Farah was finally able to return to his homeland in 1996. Secrets, which came out the year its author won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, is his first novel since that trip.

The book tells the story of Kalaman, a self-made computer company owner in Mogadiscio, who is forced to confront some devastating home truths when his childhood sweetheart Sholoongo returns from America and elbows her way back into his life. Outside Somali society is crumbling as the civil war takes hold, but inside the tried and tested structures of family and friendship are cracking too, as Kalaman, Sholoongo, his mother and grandfather dredge up recollections and revelations that will shake his sense of identity to the core.

Right from the very first sentence, which is hurled out with the flair of a master magician adept at winning the attention of the crowd – ‘One corpse, three secrets!’ – we know we are in the hands of a great storyteller. Yet, as the novel unfolds and the narrators cut in, querying, contradicting and rubbishing one another’s words, Farah reveals himself as not simply a conjuror, but an alchemist, aware of the conditions that transform the essence of stories and truth into startlingly different forms.

Whether ‘shapeshifter’ Sholoongo is picking Kalaman up on his account of their relationship, which he presents as being dominated by her but she portrays quite differently, or Nonno is unmaking and remaking his grandson’s recollections of his childhood, there are always conflicting and often diametrically opposed versions of events that must be assimilated. Secularism jostles with spiritualism; Islamic teachings rub shoulders with folklore; and the contemporary, naturalist novel finds itself hijacked by superstition, sorcery and a woman with the power to will herself into people’s dreams. As Kalaman reflects, ‘truth, after all, has its dynamism, and memory its momentary lapses’. It is up to each person to ‘inquire into the meaning of truth, and how to distinguish our find from other categories of truth’.

In the face of such multivalency, there is no place for trite simplifications. The inadequacy of the assumptions by which we all too often navigate our way through the world is perhaps most keenly shown in Kalaman’s reflection on common perceptions of the Somali conflict:

‘I let it go as I often have let go foreigners’ throwaway remarks spoken in ignorance, foreigners who held the view that “Somali politics is clan politics”. It would take me years to convince them otherwise.’

The novel does come with a health warning, though: its continual deconstruction of truth and reality can be tiring. Occasionally in the ‘Interlude’ chapters, which feature some of the book’s densest and most opaque writing, I found myself feeling as though I were waiting by the door at a party where an intense philosophical debate had erupted late in the evening, when I was ready to get my coat.

But this probably says more about me than it does about the novel. Overall, this is a rigorous, gripping and intriguing work. It challenges, shocks, delights and entertains in equal measure. An excellent find.

Secrets by Nuruddin Farah (Penguin, 1999)

Republic of Congo: war of words

There are some titles that seem to tell you everything you need to know about what’s inside a book. In the case of Johnny Mad Dog, a novel by academic Emmanuel Dongala who fled his native Republic of Congo for the US in 1997 during the civil war, I was pretty clear about what to expect: violence, unpleasantness, people being killed in cruel and unusual ways and possibly an incident with a vicious canine, depending on how literal a writer Dongala was. Just as well then that I’m not a great believer in taking things at face value, because if I had done so I might have bypassed this novel and missed out on a whole lot more.

Set during the civil war, the book follows two characters as they struggle to survive and succeed in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. While scholarly Laokolé tries desperately to get herself, her younger brother Fofo and their disabled mother out of the city as looters descend for 48 hours of mayhem, 16-year-old rebel soldier, rapist and looter Johnny Mad Dog battles for supremacy among his peers, never more than moments away from the next senseless confrontation that could end his life. At last, drawn together into the heart of the vacuum as society implodes around them, the teenagers come face to face.

Yes, violence features heavily. There are sickening killings and assaults. There is the child shot by Johnny and his cronies on the roadside and the television star raped in the studio in front of her camera crew in the minutes before she is due to go on air. What stops these episodes from being gratuitous, however, is Dongala’s insight into the processes by which we justify unforgivable actions to ourselves. Tuned into Johnny’s thoughts as he commits these crimes, we hear his paranoid delusions that his victims are somehow from rival factions – or even Chechen spies – and his bizarre conviction that the women he abuses enjoy what he is doing.

Dongala’s ability to inhabit the minds of his characters also gives rise to some unexpected flashes of comedy. We witness the bathos and confusion of the rebels as they try to dream up a nom de guerre for their breakaway faction and find themselves repeatedly suggesting the names of cars and football teams, and the ludicrous exceptions they make to the dictates of their leaders in this land where there is ‘no longer any logic’.

There are some passages of powerfully empathetic writing too. Dongala’s portrait of Laokolé’s struggles, taking in everything from her thwarted desire to study engineering to the shame and discomfort of having to do without sanitary towels amid the crowds fleeing on the roads, is quite extraordinary.

Inevitably for so humane a writer, the targets of the greatest scorn and anger are not the bungling kids perpetrating violence but the organisations and authorities that dehumanise killers and victims alike. Of these, the UN representatives and rich Westerners at the embassy where Laokolé goes to seek shelter come in for the greatest vitriol – although Dongala is careful to include a sympathetic American who tries to rescue Laokolé and so avoids slipping into the same generalisations that make him angry. Perhaps most scathing of all is the scene in which a convoy of UN vehicles sent to rescue the Western nationals knocks down a young Congolese girl begging for a place in the cars and then halts to allow one woman to run back and collect her ‘little one’, which turns out to be a lap-dog.

Dongala’s impatience to relate these intense experiences means that occasionally his plotting can be a little abrupt. The American’s offer of adopting Laokolé, for example, seems to come a bit out of nowhere, although the extremity of the circumstances might excuse it. In addition, a few of Laokolé’s turns of phrase, such as her claim at one point to have been ‘yielding to an atavistic human instinct’, are a little hard to swallow even for a bright and well-educated 16-year-old.

Overall, though, this book delivers a lot more than its fierce title promises. Subtle and surprising, it takes readers by the hand and leads  us through the chaos of civil war, finding meaning amidst the madness. A powerful work.

Johnny Mad Dog (Johnny chien méchant) by Emmanuel Dongala, translated from the French by Maria Louise Ascher (Picador, 2005)