Riverhead Books ($24.95)
by Scott Esposito
Nuruddin Farah's riveting new novel Links begins with its main character, Jeebleh, arriving at the airport in his ancestral Mogadiscio after building a life in America. Soon after he arrives, the question of why he returned arises, and it haunts him throughout the book; it is a fair question because Farah makes it clear that this is not a place for idle visitors. Mogadiscio is a country where death is ever present, a land where AK-47s cost $6 and street youths take potshots at their hapless elders for the fun of it. Whether by retreating to refuges or by fleeing the country, it is a place that people escape, not a place to which they return. The best Jeebleh can answer his interlocutor at the airport is that he has come to give his long-deceased mother a proper burial—yet like the American military he finds himself immediately inundated by politics and rivalries that threaten to swallow him like a vortex.
Upon arriving at Mogadiscio, Jeebleh is accosted by Af-Laawe, a shadowy man who claims to be an associate of his dear friend Bile. Jeebleh is mistrustful of Af-Laawe, but has little choice but to accept a ride in Af-Laawe's van, which doubles as a hearse that he uses to give the unending ranks of the newly deceased a proper Muslim burial. When their ride is interrupted by a murder and Af-Laawe hauls the body into his van-cum-hearse, Jeebleh is forced to ride in a separate vehicle. His new driver soon informs him that Af-Laawe is known as 'Marabou,' a bird that competes with vultures for carrion. Throughout the novel Farah uses such revelations to force Jeebleh (and the reader) to rethink his assumptions.
This first series of events sets the tone for the entire novel. Continually, Jeebleh is passed from person to person, all the while unsure if he is being manipulated or assisted, but helpless to do other than accept these ambiguous favors. Also typical of Jeebleh's travels through Mogadiscio is that he will hear two or three conflicting descriptions of any one acquaintance. It is up to him to determine who to trust, and often his life hangs in the balance.
Jeebleh's experiences are typical of what Farah calls "a nightmare of loyalties," the intricate web of interpersonal relationships that lies at the heart of Links. Just as Jeebleh is drawn into this nightmare, his fellow Somalis have also been drawn in, and these loyalties play a large part in perpetuating the violence that thrives throughout the book. Virtually everyone has blood on their hands, either directly or by association, and when it is time to go to war these loyalties ensure that no one is immune from the call of duty.
After his ride from the airport is finally over, Jeebleh checks into a dreary hotel and the next day meets with Bile, who helps run a sanctuary in war-torn Mogadiscio. Bile tells Jeebleh the story of his niece Raasta, a four-year-old child that Bile's fellow refugees believe is protected and has the power to keep their refuge safe. Raasta has been kidnapped, and many believe that Bile's war profiteering half-brother, Caloosha, is behind it. Jeebleh visits him the next day.
As Farah's narrative unfolds, the relationships between Jeebleh, Bile, Caloosha, Af-Laawe and several other characters are explained. Farah elaborates his characters through creative imagery, incidents, and heaps of dialog, and uses forthwith, consistent pacing. Like Jeebleh, the reader is in the dark as to each character's trustworthiness and past and must base evaluations on whatever evidence is at hand. As the pieces fall into place, Jeebleh and the reader must decide what the truth is. Through this incomplete knowledge, Farah conveys an idea of the ambiguity and conflicting relationships that are part and parcel of life in Somalia, and imparts the message that this "nightmare of loyalties" keeps the nation at war with itself.
Jeebleh's Western attitudes come into play as well. He disgraces his tribal elders by flatly refusing their demands for money to create battle wagons, an action which almost costs him his life; he also repeatedly flaunts aspects of Muslim law that he considers unreasonable, and fights valiantly to forge a meaningful compromise between his Western values and his Somali roots. Jeebleh's challenge is to wind his way through the thicket of relationships and links that surround him on all sides until he is able to discover why he has returned to Somalia and what he needs to do.
It is a difficult trip that Farah renders beautifully. The author's vivid images of everyday Mogadiscio create a dramatic mosaic, and this mosaic helps us understand Somalia as Farah sees it. Links is a slow book that relies more on revelation than plot, but like the rest of Farah's oeuvre, it is well worth the effort.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004