On the Edge of Catastrophe


by Nuruddin Farah
Arcade, 298 pp., $23.95

Nuruddin Farah
Nuruddin Farah; drawing by David Levine

Nuruddin Farah, the most important African novelist to emerge in the last twenty-five years, is also one of the most sophisticated voices in modern fiction. He is not the first African writer to have escaped from Eurocentric canons about social change, but he is the most accomplished. Those canons were deeply conservative and gloom-ridden, in the sense that they assumed that all change which burst asunder a traditional and “organic” society was a loss, a destruction. It might be a loss worth paying in order to achieve something else, the entry charge to a more open and tolerant mode of living or to the lonely but sovereign existence of an urban intellectual. But modernization—the source of this sort of transformation—must always produce pain, alienation, incomprehension between generations. The tears wept for that pain have filled the buckets of Tolstoy, Musil, Balzac, Henry James, George Eliot. Nuruddin Farah sheds his own tears, but rarely and not over the unkindness of change.

The Somalia in which he grew up is changing, more rapidly and catastrophically than anything witnessed by European writers in the nineteenth century. But change, and the Somali plunge in a few decades from nomadic pastoralism in the Horn of Africa to participating in the global economy and becoming the epicenter of an international crisis, is invigorating to him. Old customs and beliefs are not so much lost as retrained to be useful and to feed the imagination in this new life. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, do not “lose” each other because one is a peasant living in arid scrubland and the other is (to take one spectacular character in Secrets) an international model in Manhattan, who uses the money left over from her cocaine habit to buy guns for a clan militia at home. They enjoy volcanic quarrels, but they do not lose contact. In his 1998 Neustadt Lecture, reprinted in World Literature Today, Farah talks about his relations with his own parents, whom he describes as “not wholly literate in Somali” although fluent in other peoples’ languages. His mother was a folk poet who gave him access to Somali oral tradition. His father took huge pains to get him well-educated and then raged at the result. “He accused me of betraying all his aspirations [by becoming a writer] and of being treacherous to his and everyone’s expectations for me…. ‘No-one trusts subversives!”‘

In the same lecture, Farah said significantly: “Ilived in a world different from that of my parents. Not that I always had their permission to be different from them. All the same, we met, my parents and I, as though we were travelers meeting in a transit lounge….” At least they met, and recognized that they were all in transit, although to different destinations. And it may be that it is the very spe-cial qualities of the Somali people in history—their vast and robust far-voyaging self-confidence…

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