Nuruddin Farah's remarkable body of work has long been appreciated by critics, and his high reputation was consolidated by his winning the 1998 Neustadt International Prize (see WLT 72:4, pp. 701-90). All his major fiction is now in print and easily available, with the first trilogy still available at Graywolf Press, and the second trilogy beautifully produced by Arcade Publishing. Farah's first nonfiction book, Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora, has just appeared (see following review). The Autumn 1998 issue of WLT added greatly to knowledge of Farah's life and work; Derek Wright, who published a book-length study of Farah in 1994, plans a new anthology of critical essays for next year.
In this context of steadily growing critical and readerly attention, Patricia Alden and Louis Tremaine's Twayne volume on Farah is an insightful and useful addition. Their chronology and biographical chapter provide the most thorough and carefully checked account of Farah's life that I know of. Their first chapter, which details the literary, historical, and political background to Farah's Somalia, is an excellent starting point for readers (and teachers) who are fascinated by the thematics of the novels but know little about Somalia. And their annotated bibliography of selected criticism will be indispensable to both Farah fans and Farah scholars. In addition to making good use of previous interviews, they have apparently been able to record fascinating new interview material, including Farah's explanation of his second trilogy and his decisive remarks on why "clan" is not a useful concept for understanding sociopolitical developments in Somalia.
In keeping with the Twayne format, Nuruddin Farah includes a chapter of summary / criticism of Farah's work, which provides an overview of both trilogies, and also contains descriptions of Farah's plays (The Offering, A Spread of Butter, and d and his Brothers), which were important in the development of his thinking. As is appropriate for a writer whom Alden and Tremaine "do not hesitate to describe ... as a male feminist," their book contains a shrewd chapter called "Writing About Women." This chapter notes that Farah was the first African creative writer, male or female, to focus on the trauma of female circumcision, and that he has created a remarkable group of three-dimensional female characters, but then takes on the much trickier question of Farah's metaphorical use of women. Maps, a novel in which not one but two mother-figures die birthing the hero, gives them pause, but they finally decide that it is the central character, rather than the novelist, who has trapped these women in some old and damaging tropes: "The point of the novel, however, is Askar's failure, despite his intellectual comprehension of women's oppression, to imagine Misra in any other way than as a symbol." Other passages, however, such as the description of a pubescent girl's body in Sardines, or an amazing metaphor of the night opening up "like the teased lips of a vagina" from the same novel, evoke a more ambivalent response from Alden and Tremaine, who fear that some readers may find the appeal of certain passages "mainly prurient," and that Farah's practice here is "risky" and its impact "uneven." They handle this difficult and important discussion well, always staying aware of which character is producing the figurative language about women, and of how it relates to the overall thematics of the work; they conclude that in at least some Farah novels, "implicitly the female body is assumed to be altogether more fascinating than the male body."
One of Farah's strengths as a writer analyzing dictatorship has been his insistence that the personal and the political are different manifestations of the same phenomena. A country where a father can freely beat his children or abuse his wife is not likely, he implies, to achieve democracy at the national level. Farah's whole work could be described as an effort to dismantle narratives about the nation, blood kinship, and the patriarchal family that so often lead to murder, and to put in their place stories about voluntary, tender, communal, body-based affections that help humans to nurture each other. Alden and Tremaine know this very well, and they explore the aspect of Farah's work in a chapter called "The Politics of Autonomy," which may slightly underemphasize the importance of family and community to the formation of autonomous selves in Farah, so that some readers may confuse their "autonomy" with the very different "individuality" so prized in North America. Despite what they know and theorize in the chapter, conventional terminology sometimes pulls them back to characterizing certain novels as "political" and others as "personal" (or "psychological"), when all the novels deal with both at once. Farah's work is out ahead of these terms, and Alden and Tremaine's fine book leaves future critics the task of finding consistent ways to describe Farah's innovative refusal of them.
Charlie Sugnet University of Minnesota
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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