Until now, the first and last book I had read set in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu was Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, his breathtaking minute-by-minute nonfiction account of the catastrophic 1993 American mission, which left 18 U.S. soldiers dead and led to the withdrawal of peacekeeping forces from the country. Not to take anything away from Bowden’s action-packed reportage, but the people of Mogadishu — mobs of red-eyed, drug-addled young men wielding RPGs — had all the humanity of fiends in a videogame, and it was a queasy thrill every time one of Bowden’s corn-fed heroes mowed one down.
Nuruddin Farah’s calm, profoundly humane new novel, Knots, makes an ideal and sobering companion piece to Bowden’s book. Introspective, sedately paced, and resolutely focused on ordinary Somalians, Knots presents one very tentative, hopeful answer to the question left hanging at the end of Black Hawk Down: What future is there for a country that has spun so wildly out of control?
As depicted by Farah, the reality on the ground in Mogadishu — an anarchic, violent, impoverished, unspeakably squalid city he calls Mogadiscio — is every bit as horrifying as the hell on earth that Bowden described. But Farah’s Somalians aren’t waiting for a helicopter to airlift them out; Somalia is a problem they long to solve. Their country is tied up in knots, and picking away at those knots is what Farah, and his unforgettable heroine Cambara, quietly try to do.
The novel opens as Cambara, a Mogadishu-born actress who has been living in Canada, arrives in the city, hoping to reclaim family property that has been taken over by a warlord. But her reasons seem vague and illogical. Her young son recently drowned while her husband was ”having it off” with his girlfriend. So Cambara, tied up in knots herself, has decided to relocate to Somalia? To move into the filthy apartment of her hostile, lecherous cousin Zaak, a man to whom she was once, briefly, married? To make a new life in a society where she must wear a veil and carry a knife whenever she steps out the front door?
But this spellbinding character — fierce, cerebral, chilly, and eaten up by both grief and rage — turns out to have her reasons. And she has plans, which Farah slowly teases out (sometimes very slowly, and in slightly awkward English). Step by step, Cambara does find a narrow path through the chaos; and one by one, she begins amassing friends, allies, maybe even a lover. The denouement belongs to a fairy tale — or to a great author’s heartfelt dream of a happy ending for his troubled heroine and ravaged homeland. A-