Nuruddin Farah’s eleventh novel begins with what quickly comes to seem a grimly comic scene. A hungry teenager, four and a half feet tall, but with “the face of an old man”—we know him only as “YoungThing”—is walking through a rundown district in Somalia’s capital, “hoisting a carryall bigger and heavier than he is” and trying to find the house that his jihadist bosses have told him to “consecrate” (or confiscate, as we would put it). Already having failed to make the grade as a suicide bomber, the luckless boy has now been deputed to stock a safe house with arms.
He passes a woman along the dirt road and, getting the words wrong, asks her where north is; sensing he’s up to no good, she sends him south. He passes two men whom he mistakenly believes to be informants, and one craftily directs him to the house of a business rival. When finally the boy does come into a building he’s meant to prepare as a militants’ stronghold, he walks into an old man, who mistakes him for one of his grandchildren.
Even the most vicious covert missions in a country like Somalia are in the hands, we realize, of blunderers and pathetic ne’er-do-wells who don’t, quite literally, know where they’re going. Yet in Somalia, Farah suggests, absurdist comedy seldom has a happy ending; when the murderers who have sent the boy on his errand find out about his blunders, they’re not inclined to laugh.
Not many novelists have made themselves over to describe their country’s changing conditions as radically as Farah has; only twenty years ago, in the trilogy entitled “Blood in the Sun”—containing the novels Maps, Gifts, and Secrets—he was still writing almost as an anthropologist might, stitching together memories of his childhood in what is now Somalia. Through portraits of family life and mystical dreamscapes he offered us a largely private vision of a land very much rooted in the past (Farah had gone into exile in the mid-1970s, after an early novel antagonized the dictatorship of the time).
Yet after his country began to descend into an unending series of civil wars in 1991, Farah started to return and to give us vivid works of reportage in which an insider’s access to intimate knowledge was placed inside the frame of an outsider’s global perspective. Gone were the leisurely, incantatory paragraphs of the earlier fiction, the mango trees and magical spells, the highly literary evocations of an almost timeless world; in their place came tense, genuinely exciting political thrillers a little in the manner of Robert Stone (though without the metaphysics).
Farah’s recent novels, never more so than the latest, are harrowing reports from a fractured country that looks suicidal when it isn’t murderous. Writing in English, his fifth language, he gives …