Nuruddin Farah. Crossbones.
Crossbones completes Nuruddin Farah's "Past Imperfect" trilogy, in which the nuanced style, rich characterizations, and allegorical power of Maps, for instance (the first in his earlier trilogy, "Blood in the Sun," also written in English), yields to workmanlike prose, a plot-driven structure, and a cast of relatively under-drawn protagonists, including Bile, Cambara, and deebleh, whose fates once more entwine. No aesthetic masterpiece, this latest work fits more the category "thriller" than "literary novel." But like its trilogy in toto, it fulfills an important function, transporting us to a distant, troubled nation seen largely through Western news media and film.
One stumbles at first through the clumsy narration, choppy action scenes, and a "cast of thousands," including reluctant pirates, middle men, Islamists, political and economic opportunists, teenage suicide bombers, and would-be martyrs. But as Farah chronicles the chaos both before and during Ethiopia's most recent invasion of a weak Somalia loosely governed by the "Union of Islamic Courts," the narrative at last evolves into a web of internal and external threats and stratagems that builds to a "breathless" denouement.
Crossbones's principal setting, Mogadiscio--a warren of dusty, narrow streets lined with ruins, chaotic markets, and people of all classes and dress darting everywhere--effectively mirrors the plot machinations radiating from its core and back. Expatriate Jeebleh, his son-in-law Malik, and Malik's brother, Ahl, fly to Somalia to find and retrieve Ahl's teenage stepson, Taxliil, who, radicalized in his Minnesota mosque, has chosen to martyr himself. To this end, his relatives must pursue fragile, interwoven threads that lead to the courts, al-Shabaab militants, pirates, bordering states, and more powerful nations. But this proves merely the scaffolding on which hang the layered political intrigues that Crossbones reveals.
For even as events unfold with the intensity of an edge-of-the-seat "thriller," one apprehends that unlike the latter, drawn from headlines to entertain, Crossbones plumbs the murky depths, probing what the Somali-Malay-Chinese journalist Malik calls "a spiraling degeneracy that a near stranger like me cannot make full sense of." Through its characters' odyssey, for example, the novel critiques the standard Western depiction of the pirate situation as simplistic and self-serving. Linking it rather to Western financial operatives, it faults stronger Western and Eastern nations for destroying Somalia's fishing industry. Moreover, it takes aim at America's interventions in Somalia while simultaneous]y problematizing their manipulation by equally self-serving Islamists. Ultimately, it portrays the intricate dance that both expats and natives must perform to survive in a city rife with agents of the courts, Ethiopians, al-Shabaab, criminals, foreign agents, and spies for all these forces, many linked in complex ways, all fueled by "personal gains and personality conflicts." For as Malik writes, "This conflict has nothing to do with clan or religious rivalries. Rather, it has everything to do with economics."
A novel is not, of course, "true," and all narrative, whether history or fiction, reflects its narrator's position. But this glimpse through indigenous, not Western or Eastern, eyes deepens our vision of the forces and history that shape today's Somalia.
North Carolina A&T University