Friday, December 26, 2008

"Links," one of the Great Novels of this decade

Nuruddin Farah from Somalia is one of the leading writers of the world and frequently mentioned for the Nobel Prize. His second novel got him exiled by the dictator Siad Barre. For decades he has lived in exile. His nine novels are always set in Somalia which first had the military despot Barre ruling from 1969-1991 and then civil wars since the 1990s. After the nation state failed, the clans which warred against each other became the dominant force in Somalia in the 1990s. Farah has always tried to keep the idea the idea of the nation alive in his writing. Starting in his first novel and continuing through his work, he has deplored female subjugation in Somalia and honored the strength of women there.

"Links," Farah’s ninth novel, deals with how Somalis in the mid-1990s during the horrors of the civil war gave each other courage, love, and refuge. The main character Jeebleh is an exile living in New York returning home after a twenty year absence to Mogadiscio. With epigrams from Dante’s Inferno, Farah leads us through the hell of Mogadiscio in the mid-1990s as Jeebleh lands at the airport just captured by a warlord and full of menacing armed young men. Jeebleh like the reader is disorientated by this strange, violent land so different from the peaceful Mogadiscio he once knew.

Jeebleh like all Somalis has to choose who to trust: his clan, the one dominated northern Mogadiscio, or his best friend Bile from a different clan that dominates southern Mogadiscio. Does one trust blood relations of the tribe or friends? Jeebleh choose friends over blood of the clan. He finds refuge from the violent city with Bile, a doctor who along with close friends and family started the Refuge, a clinic/school/refugee home for people from different clans. The Refuge that Bile creates were “oceans of comfort in a land of sorrow” (155).

Bile’s young niece Rasta, a child many Somalis consider magical and giving protection and safety to those near her, has disappeared along with her best friend. Jeebleh wants to find the grave of his mother and rescue Rasta, and again he turns not to his clan but to his friends who help him. Again and again his clan relatives lie to him, try to coerce money from him, and try to kill him. Farah clearly sees armed warring clans as destructive forces and only trusting, loving friends who create refuges able to bring the future.

Throughout the novel Jeebleh and his friends tell each other stories—stories of what they did in the previous twenty years through which Somali history unfold or Somali folktales through which Somali culture is revealed. At one point Jeebleh thinks, “He and his friends were forever linked through the chains of the stories they shared” (334). At one point a friend tells Jeebleh that “It makes me sad to think that you’ll not only become part of the civil war story, but totally get lost in it” (215).

Jeebleh never gets lost in the civil war story but instead constructs an alternative story about honoring his dead mother, getting justice, and loving his friends. "Links" is about how constructing alternative stories to the civil war story in Somalia is necessary to creating peace, hope, and a future. The novel brilliantly thrusts us into the inferno of violent Mogadiscio but leaves us with a hopeful and tranquil. It is one of the great novels of this decade.

No comments: