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 as traders across Africa and much of Asia—that have enabled them to enjoy surfing through dizzying change and to survive the disasters of civil war with all their curiosity and humor intact.

In the early 1980s, Nuruddin Farah completed his trilogy of novels about Somalia under dictatorship—books that forced him into exile. Sweet and Sour Milk, Sardines, and Close Sesame (republished in 1992 as paperbacks by Graywolf Press) established his fame and made his readers familiar with his own special pattern of complex family and sexual drama weaving across a sinister and brilliant political narrative. Close Sesame, in particular, seems to me the best novel ever written about the terrors, hopes, and ironies of postcolonial tyranny. All three novels, moreover, closely explore the sensibilities of women as well as of men, something which was inevitably praised by many European and American critics who had grown anxious, even pessimistic, about male chauvinism in African literature (“one of the few African men who write wonderfully about women,” commented Doris Lessing).

This is not because Somali society is free of machismo—far from it—but for the more intriguing reason that Nuruddin Farah, as a boy, seems to have developed his own writing talent around a sense of outrage about the treatment of women. “The more I got to know about the injustices perpetrated by men against the womenfolk, the more conscious I grew of my powers,”he once recalled. At the age of twelve, Farah was already using his precocious literacy to write letters for family friends trying to recover wives who had fled to their homes, and he was capable of changing the text of a letter to give the estranged woman a better deal. Creativity and poetic energy was something he associated with women, through the example of his own mother:

She had the self-confident vitality to reinvent the world daily by singing about it…. I thought she was more articulate than my father who, patriarch that he was, talked in certainties, never doubting that he might be wrong.

Secrets, Farah’s latest novel, moves away from the expectations set up by the trilogy. On the surface, it is a great deal less concerned with Somalian politics and a great deal more absorbed in family intrigue, magic, sex, and a man’s search for the well-hidden truth about his own parentage. His name is Kalaman. Even as a boy of eight, this word sounds strange to him and he goes to consult the wisdom of Nonno, his paternal grandfather, who named him. But, sitting under a mango tree and sharing fruit salad in a wooden bowl with his grandson, Nonno is evasive. He gave him the name to “stand on its own, independent of your father’s name or mine.” So now Kalaman knows that there is a mystery. From that moment up to the time of his manhood, as a streetwise young intellectual who runs a computer business in Mogadishu, the capital, he is compelled gradually to unravel the secrets of his birth and identity until the last knot falls open.


But Secrets is much more than a novel about existential searchings and personal relationships. It isn’t long before the reader begins to grasp the ominous significance of the time and place in which the story is set, even though Nuruddin Farah never makes it quite explicit. This is Mogadishu in 1991, the last days and hours before a colossal explosion of clan and warlord violence buried the old Somalia under its lava. Pompeii comes to mind. This is “The Last Days of Mogadishu,” although Farah expertly keeps the politics in the background and breaks his tale off before the general bloodshed overflows across the lives of his characters. Kalaman drives through streets where armed men are beginning to cluster on corners, and roadblocks are appearing across highways. Questions of descent—like Kalaman’s own question—are becoming urgent and practical as people disinter their old allegiance to this clan or that. Mobs walk about behind drums, chanting songs of hatred. At night, there is already gunfire. “Madmen fighting over contending memories.” Kalaman records with horror

intimate friends betraying one another on account of narcissistic differences, a man raping his sister-in-law and emptying her of her fetus just because the woman belonged to a different bloodline from his…. He would rather he died a newt, and from suffocation, than be killed by a friend with an ancestral memory different from his own.

Knowing that the novel’s characters are living on the edge of a holocaust, a mutual genocide of rival ancestries, puts their actions under a luridly symbolic illumination. Unstated, there are allegories prowling through this story. Kalaman, trying to discover whose son he is, is following the journey of his own people but—unlike Somalia—reaches the truth without being obliged to hate or kill those whose son he is not. And then there is the woman Sholoongo.

A few years older than he, she plays sex games with the child Kalaman and soon has him in her power. She reveals herself as a disruptive, elemental force, driving him on to demand answers to all the secrets around him. Kalaman’s mother, taking an instant and enduring hatred to Sholoongo, is not surprised by anything she does because Sholoongo is a duugan—a baby abandoned in the wild and brought up by a lioness. No wonder she has used magic to bind Kalaman to her, by coaxing him to taste her menstrual blood.

For a time, she leaves Somalia and Kalaman in peace, migrating to the United States with her half-brother Timir. Sholoongo, putting her shamanic talents on the market, sets up a union in New York for people who magically change their shape and marries a Moroccan fire-eater. Timir, after a spell in the gay scene in San Francisco, returns to Mogadishu on the eve of war and is joined by his sister; nobody is sure whether they have come back solely for their father’s funeral or whether they are using the death as a pretext to bring money from America destined to pay for the weapons of a clan militia. As for Sholoongo, she turns up in Kalaman’s flat demanding to be made pregnant by him. Kalaman’s mother, hearing about this, buys a gun to deal with this “witch and bitch” who has enchanted her son and—unknown to him—stolen the official document which holds the key to his paternity. Soon she discovers that Sholoongo has also tried to seduce her own father-in-law, Nonno. The subversion by sex of all Somalia’s male-enforced taboos and secrets—that is Sholoongo’s program.

Complex and rich as this extraordinary narrative is, magic of many kinds enriches it further. People living with mastery of all the twentieth century’s latest equipment find no contradiction in the idea that Sholoongo may have metamorphosed herself into an elephant who tramples somebody to death. Nonno, recalling Kalaman’s birth, speaks of a sparrow that warned him that the delivery would be difficult, of a bee that came to him in a dream and recommended tamarind syrup to bring the newborn baby to life, of a crow that watched over the moment of birth and cried “Kalaman!” from the bough of a tree. And as Nonno sits with his grandson remembering these things, a blackheaded plover—bird of sinister omens of division and dissension—enters the house and perches on the table as they talk.


Step by step, Kalaman approaches the secret of his own beginnings. He drives down back streets in a city where dead bodies lying on the ground no longer attract attention. He works on Arbaco, mother of the Manhattan supermodel who is bankrolling one of the clan militia groups, and she discloses some of the names and dates he needs to know. He reconstructs a story about the humiliation of the woman who was to be his mother, about one man who lusted for her so much that he tried to entrap her with a forged marriage certificate, about the blackmailer who won the certificate at a gambling session and preyed upon the young woman over the years, about the patient and modest man who rescued her and made a home with her as if he were her husband and Kalaman’s father. And in the end it turns out that no “real” father for Kalaman will ever be found. He is the product of a gang-rape on his mother, led by the rejected lover and the blackmailer and followed by their gang of cronies.

The book ends with a coda, sustained but puzzling. Sholoongo goes to the house of Nonno, now old, sick, and appalled by the national doom he sees approaching. She climbs into his bed and, in a scene of minutely described sexual inventiveness, rouses Nonno to make love to her. She wants a child by him, but she also seems to be trying to rape her way through his traditional cast of mind, his terrible male discretion which prefers to know rather than to tell. Before she leaves Nonno, she abuses him:

You and your obsessions, your predilections for secrets, your penchant for keeping them, pretending as if this is for the general good of society. You know what’s wrong with our people? Where there is no individual justice, there can be no communal justice, certainly no possibility of democracy.

Sholoongo departs, and Nonno, broken by her exertions, dies.

Nuruddin Farah can confound his readers with the richness and oddity of his imagination. On the first page of Secrets, he writes of people slowly breaking into smiles, “grins as self-conscious as a sparrow dipping its head in the river’s mist.” The last passage, about the sexual combat between Sholoongo and Nonno, is gnomic too; it isn’t clear why it is there, how it works in the novel’s structure, or how deep its elements of symbolism and allegory may run. Farah is a novelist who has spent twenty years and more in exile from his own country, and his imagination is private and lonely as well as opulent. There are secrets in Farah’s powerful fiction that he is unwilling and perhaps unable to disclose.

This Issue

March 4, 1999