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Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.

Recently Baltimore Sun reporter Richard Sia described the beating a Western photographer narrowly escaped somewhere near Afgoi, Somalia, after using as a bathroom a building that was "either a place of worship or the site where the local clan leaders have their enemies tortured." This small story would, I think, appeal to Nuruddin Farah, for his novels concern just such problems of correctly reading one's surroundings in a country that has been for decades rendered ambiguous because of cultural heterogeneity; govemment-sponsored deception, violence, and ideological double-speak; clan factionalism; repressive religious and cultural traditions; and the sundry confusions colonialism and post-colonial fascism have left in their wake.

For those whose images of the Hom of Africa come from recent media coverage, Farah's Somalia niay be a bit of a surprise, his trilogy focusing as it does on the country's disaffected middle-class intellectual elite - professors, journalists, government employees, medical doctors - in the years following Major General Muhammad Siyad Barre's October 1969 coup. First published in Great Britain by Allison and Busby between 1979 and 1983, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship seeks to expose the repressive measures employed by "the General" and his mostly clan-related cohorts under the aegis of communist advisors," measures ranging from murder, torture, and incarceration to the control of infornution and disseniination of niisinformation, surveillance by secret police and government informers, and the making and breaking of lives and reputations through the bestowal and removal of government "favors." Yet as Farah exposes the General's regime, he draws an equation between political fascism and the fascism at the heart of the country's tribalism, patriarchal family structure, and cultural traditions while casting a critical if not unsympathetic eye on Islam. It is this rejection of traditionalism, according to Kristen Holst Petersen (writing in Ariel), that distinguishes Farah from "the established African literary tradition" represented by Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, and others.

The first volume of the trilogy, Sweet & Sour Milk, opens with the mysterious death of Soyaan, a government official and secret activist intent upon the overthrow of the General, and unfolds as the dead man's brother Loyaan seeks the truth behind the murder (who did it and how), the meaning behind certain coded notes in the dead man's possession, the location and contents of subversive "memoranda" Soyaan supposedly wrote, and the reasons for Soyaan's posthumous elevation to the status of state hero. Loyaan's rather impotent detective work (he is quickly overwhelmed by machinations he can't fully fathom and by an increasing inability to decide whom to trust) is foiled finally as much by his own desire for martyrdom as by either the General or his own father - a former government "interrogator."

Soyaan, we learn, was part of a secret underground of ten revolutionaries (although the novels make clear that disenchantment ran widely and deeply throughout Somalia). Sardines concerns two other members of this group, Samater (who has been defused by being made a government official under circumstances prohibiting his refusal of the position), and his wife Medina, a writer whose work is (not unlike Farah's own) presently under a ban following her appointment as editor of the only daily newspaper in Mogadiscio (Farah prefers the Italian spelling), in which position her editorial decisions quickly ran afoul of the General's notion of truth and its proper presentation. A university-educated feminist, Medina - and the diverse group of women whose acquaintance with her introduces them into the plot - provides Farah with the opportunity for his most concentrated critique of male-female relationships, the status of women in patriarchal Somalia, and what in America can today only jokingly be referred to as "traditional family values" (including, here, Medina's efforts to save her daughter from her mother-in-law's plans to have the girl infibulated and circumcised).

Close Sesame, Farah's most violent offering, tells of three other members of the subversive ten, though their actions concern the reader mostly as they impact on the aging father of one of them, a devout Muslim and visionary named Deeriye who has spent most of his life in prison, first for "crimes" against the Italians during the colonial period, later for objecting to how the General was running things. Although several critics have argued that Farah's sympathies lie less with tradition and the search for roots than do those of other African novelists, Close Sesame seems at least ambivalent when not approving of much of Deeriye's religion, of the strength and sanity it provides him, as well as of his regret over certain lost customs and assumptions: "Deeriye nodded. These unneighbourly neighbours: a world stood on its head.... Traditionally, one had but the best welcome for one's neighbors."

The three novels achieve coherence as a trilogy both by their thematic foci and by modest appearances in each of characters on center stage in any one of them. Bringing these three novels together is, on the other hand, a tad arbitrary insofar as Farah's first two novels - From a Crooked Rib (1970), the first Somalian novel published in English, and A Naked Needle 1976) - feature characters making briefer appearances in the trilogy and broach (as does his 1986 novel Maps) related themes. In all his novels, Farah's plots are sufficiently provocative to keep one reading and serve as a fine (and always relevant) setting for his reflections on politics, customs, and culture, reflections that rarely lapse into sociological pontification or ideological harangue. If I were to object to anything here, it would be Farah's penchant for chapter titles and epigraphic prose poems that are at best vaguely evocative and for prose that is excessively burdened by metaphors often more obfuscating and awkward than otherwise (e.g., "Sagal went with her, wrapped in a towel which fitted her like a pram wearing a child").

In 1983 a reviewer for the London Observer described Farah as a "diluted Salman Rushdie," and so Farah may or may not be; his work, however, gives evidence of why and how much fiction can matter both to those whose world it most immediately concerns and to those of us who need the sort of empathic understanding of the so-called Third World that literature at its best can offer us. I might add in closing that Graywolf Press has brought Farah to us in very handsome editions. [Brooke Horvath]
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Horvath, Brooke
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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