Increasingly, Nuruddin Farah is recognized as one of the two or three most important novelists writing in Africa. He may be more broadly characterized as a “post/post” writer (postcolonial and postmodern) whose work explores the possibilities of living in and out of multiple cultural identities. Born in pre-independence Somalia, university-educated in India, Farah draws upon techniques of European modernism to produce novels which, like Joyce’s, are obsessively steeped in the culture from which he has been in exile for nearly two decades. Farah has refused, in his living as in his writing, to make the West his center, adopting a nomadic lifestyle which has included lengthy stays in several African countries as well as visiting appointments at American and German universities.
Derek Wright’s book is a timely and exceptionally well-executed introductory study of Farah. The novels are situated within their complex historical, political and cultural contexts, and at the same time Wright provides carefully developed interpretations which guide the reader through Farah’s labyrinthine, unresolved plots, his allusions, parallel patterns, symbolic dreamscapes and streams of consciousness. Wright’s critical approach to this sometimes dauntingly unfamiliar material is old-fashioned textual analysis, useful to any newcomer to Farah, including undergraduates who will find its methodology exemplary. An exhaustive bibliography includes Farah’s occasional essays and interviews he has given.
Wright begins with chapters on Farah’s two apprentice novels, From a Crooked Rib (1970) and A Naked Needle (1976). In the first Wright explores Farah’s imaginative engagement with the plight of [End Page 381] women in an Islamicized, pastoralist society and his interest in a consciousness shaped by an oral culture. A Naked Needle shows Farah contending with literary forebears, especially Joyce. The preoccupations of this early work are extended in the later novels as Farah increasingly weaves materials drawn from both African and European frames of reference into a narrative fabric which has a strikingly postmodern quality of “unstitching” itself, to use Wright’s metaphor.
Sweet and Sour Milk (1979) is the first of Farah’s three novels about life under the Siyad Barre regime in Somalia, collectively titled Variations on a Theme of African Dictatorship. As Farah explores the relationship between the family and the state, he deconstructs familiar oppositions, showing how traditional authority, underpinned by Islam, and further strengthened by divisive clan structures, actually works hand-in-glove with a modern police state. If the patriarchs are tyrants, the western-educated “priviligentsia” who oppose dictatorship are ineffectual and uncertain how to act in a world of frightening indeterminacy. Medina, the progressive feminist in Sardines (1981), boldly confronts “the General” but remains blind to the one-woman rule she exercises in opposing tyranny within her own family. However, in Close Sesame (1983), the final volume of the trilogy, Farah shifts his angle of vision, creating a positive image of a family presided over with great gentleness and dignity by the aging, devoutly Muslim Deeriye. This figure, who has also been a nationalist hero in the struggle against colonialism, obliges the reader to reconsider how tradition (both religious and cultural) can serve as a source of strength. Unlike Kenya’s Ngugi or Ghana’s Armah, Farah provides multiple perspectives on African and European cultures. He dissolves binary distinctions in order to explore the ambiguities surrounding those who live at cultural crossroads.
While Wright praises the “polyvalency” of Farah’s work, he acknowledges that on occasion readers may be frustrated by the proliferation of meanings, suggestions, and allusions: the passion for indeterminacy may appear at times an affectation. But Farah, importantly for Wright, is “a liminal phenomenon, one who crosses boundaries and migrates between zones.” His characters straddle national, sexual, and ontological boundaries “in such a way as to dissolve the distinctions between the things they divide.” This inclination, perhaps the most distinctive feature of Farah’s writing, is nowhere more in evidence than in Maps (1986), his most difficult and interesting novel to date. Askar, [End Page 382] Farah’s mythic child-narrator, is, like Rushdie’s Saleem...