To the Horn of Africa

Lying on the easternmost part of the Horn of Africa is the modern nation of Somalia. Its proximity to the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden, and seminal ancient civilizations made Somalia and its surrounding region an important commercial and trading center during ancient times. It is also strategically situated between the sub-Saharan region and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and southwestern Asia, placing Somalia in a critical and seminal geopolitical position. It was once a colony of Great Britain and it was only on July 1, 1960, that Somalia declared its independence, thus forming the modern Republic of Somalia. While it played a seminal role in ancient times, modern Somalia has been hampered by several upheavals that kept threatening its progress. Civil wars, authoritarian regimes, and territorial disputes with its neighboring nations and within the country itself have become ubiquitous.

Writer Nuruddin Farah bore witness to the decline that has taken over his country. Three years after the Republic of Somalia was formed, Farah was forced to flee Soomaali Galbeed (Western Somalia) due to the escalation of unrest caused by border conflicts in the region. For years, he lived abroad where he pursued his writing career. While he was fluent in the tongues of his motherland – Somali, Amharic, and Arabic – he opted to write in English because the only typewriter made available to him was in English. Now one of the most lauded contemporary writers, Farah is considered a pillar of Somali literature, and African literature as a whole. Farah has written some of the most provocative literary masterpieces that dissect his nation’s maladies while, at the same time, providing insight into its mores, culture, and beliefs.

It was this tumultuous state that formed the backdrop for Farah’s novel Secret. Published in 1998, Secrets was the concluding book in Farah’s highly-acclaimed Blood in the Sun trilogy, succeeding the critically-acclaimed Maps (1986) and Gifts (1993). The story started a week before the breakout of the Somali civil war in 1996, a tumultuous period in the nation’s contemporary history that saw the country’s descent into utter chaos. Disorder and unrest ensued following the decline of the dictatorship. As the dictator plans to flee the capital, tribes were making their way to the city, armed and ready to fight. A week before pandemonium, the readers meet Kalaman, a modern Somali man, 33 years of age, and a computer programmer living in the country’s capital of Mogadishu. He has a child but had no intentions of marrying his child’s mother, to the consternation of his mother Damac.

“There was a symmetry to our conversation. We kept skirting, we kept going around topics, we kept going back to them, we kept teasig them in the belief that we would light on the key to the secret which had so far evaded us. We tapped on as many doors as possible, a touch of disappointment altering the complexion of our faces whenever access was denied to us.”

~ Nuruddin Farah, Secrets

One corpse, three secrets!” It was in the past, however, that the story commenced. We first meet Kalaman a quarter of a century earlier in a Somali countryside village. It was in this countryside village that he was raised and looked after by his paternal grandfather Nonno. It was also Nonno who gave his grandson his name, which, on the surface, sounded like a whimsical choice. Even his grandson, when he was younger, had objections to his name. In the Prologue, Kalaman mentioned that “there was a brief period when I thought of altering my name altogether.” The crux of the story, however, was his relationship with Sholoongo. When he was younger, Kalaman became infatuated with Sholoongo. Older than him by a couple of months, Sholoongo was abandoned by her mother in the bush. Her mother left her for the simple reason that the alignment of stars during her birth was not promising.

Kalaman was reluctant to approach Sholoongo at first for he found her a domineering person. But as soon as he overcame his shyness, Kalaman and Sholoongo became inseparable. We then read about their adventures, misadventures, and experiences growing up, including those of sexual nature. Nonno, on the other hand, cultivated the growing fondness they had for each other despite the backstories regarding her birth. When they became adults, however, their paths diverged. Sholoongo chose to move to New York and leave her childhood lover. But just when Kalaman’s life started to stabilize, Sholoongo made an unexpected reentry twenty-five years after their first encounter; fate can be whimsical. Sholoongo returned to Mogadishu with an unusual and unexpected proposition for her former lover.

Her reappearance and her proposal more than disrupted Kalaman’s present peace. Her proposal made Kalaman retreat to his grandfather’s farm in order to seek his wisdom. The trip proved to be pivotal as, in the process, Kalaman started questioning his family’s history, and by extension, his own identity. Sholoongo unknowingly set into motion a chain of events that would unlock Kalaman’s own Pandora’s box. As the capital was slowly descending into pandemonium, Kalaman was descending into his own personal pandemonium after he unearthed several layers of secrets, hence, the book’s title. As the lives of the two main characters intertwined again, what ensued was a tale brimming with secrets. It abounded with betrayals, hidden agendas, and dark intentions. These are revelations that would figure prominently in the novel’s hero’s life.

Kalaman’s search for the truth rendered the story an atmosphere of mystery. As the tenterhook hangs heavily in the air, the voices started to diverge. From Kalaman’s perspective, the narrative was seized by the characters in his life; they started taking turns in sharing their own perspective. What unfolded was a world where sex was rampant; it was one of the major drivers of these secrets. Graphic images of sex filled every corner of the story, with references to each character’s sexual adventures and misadventures, and their sexual indiscretions, occupying a significant portion of the story. There was even a part where a character drank menstrual blood. The exploration of individual sexuality was also a subject. Beyond sex, the secrets also involved a slew of stolen documents, blackmail, and even paternity. The story abounded with dark subjects such as pedophilia, rape, murder, and violence.

“Commonplace names need propping up. Commonplace names need to spoken in conjunction with a father’s name, or a grandfather’s. Or better still, they need to have a custom-made nickname added to their tail ends. Otherwise they do not feel right somehow, as if there is something incomeplete about them. Name a child Mohammed, and everybody is bound to ask ‘Mohammed Who?’”

~ Nuruddin Farah, Secrets

History, politics, and secrets were the novel’s most pervasive themes. However, it was the novel’s cultural touchstones that elevates it. Farah, an important scholar in Somali Studies, wove intricate details of Somali culture into the novel, thus, further enriching its tapestry. It is also a seminal part of his prose. Secrets abounded with discourses and vivid descriptions of clan customs, mores, and taboos. For instance, one character was a duugan which, according to Somali tradition, was a child born to be buried, almost akin to the Yoruban abiku. Spirits and other changelings populated the story. It was these details of Somali culture that gave the story a distinct complexion. Farah’s descriptions of village life and religion were equally scintillating.

If there was one facet of Somali culture prominently displayed in the narrative it would be folklore. Farah blurred the lines between the human and animal worlds. The novel abounded with references to animals and how they figure into Somali culture as a whole. All over the narrative, animals keep metamorphizing into people. In one instance, a man’s car broke down when a crow suddenly appeared and helped him repair his car. The man, Nonno, was on his way to attend his grandson’s birth. It was from the crow’s squawk that Nonno derived his grandson’s unique name. More importantly, in ancient Somali culture, the crow is considered the sky god. Meanwhile, after she was abandoned by her mother, Sholoongo was raised by a lioness with her cubs before eventually abandoning her at a crossroads where some travelers found her. Snakes, cows, birds, and other animals were repeatedly referred to in the story and some characters even transformed into these animal forms.

Into this world, Farah transported his readers. This mythic world contrasted the tumult that was brewing over the horizon. As Kalaman digs into his family’s past, the rest of the country was descending into chaos. The story of Kalaman, his complicated and dysfunctional family, and Sholoongo was a reflection of the tumultuous contemporary history of Somalia. An important vessel in the storytelling process was the novel’s polyphonic voice. However, this polyphonic diminished the story’s overall impact. For one, they were unreliable narrators. There were parts where they say they forget the story or that they will tell the rest later only to forget about it. These alternating voices made the story drag longer than needed. There were also no distinguishing marks to differentiate the voices; they all sounded the same because they were fixated on the same subject. The narrative style, however, did well in immersing the readers in the story.

Of the novel’s characters, it was Nonno who figured prominently. He was also singly the most interesting character. He was a self-made man who cared a lot for his family. His wisdom flowed throughout the story. Kalaman was his antithesis. He was a passive and unimpressive character. He had a weak constitution. He lacked his grandfather’s finer qualities.While Farah’s writing made the characters and Somali culture come alive, the story’s force was adversely impacted by his blunders. Farah was relentless in his imagery that it became repetitive. This repetitiveness, coupled with the lack of distinction among the story’s voices, weighed down on the story. Apart from the graphic and sexual images, the writing and plotting were uneven. The secret that held the story together and the mystery surrounding it were unremarkable. The story meandered that the significance of the secrets was buried by the other facets of the story. When the secret was finally revealed, it lost its magic.

“With my vision impaired, my hopes of Somalia surviving the disasters are nil. Like me – and I am on my deathbed – she is as good as gone. It is a tragedy that the country which many generations have strived to shape is being destroyed piecemeal right in front of our unseeing eyes. Cursed, I have become blind, because I’ve failed to read the warning signals. Our people have not heeded the signs portending the coming catastrophes. I am as good as gone. Our country is as good as gone. My advise to you is make of your life what you may.”

~ Nuruddin Farah, Secrets

Despite its blunders, Secrets provided an intimate peek into a seminal and pivotal point in contemporary Somalia’s history. Farah captured a vivid portrait distinct from the images captured by global media companies. He diagnosed the conditions which led to the collapse of order: violence, murder, traditions, and hidden agendas. Sex was also a pervasive element. The story of Kalaman’s dysfunctional family then is an allegory for the ensuing pandemonium, of the Civil War that would destabilize the country for years. These dark subjects were contrasted by cultural touchstones and mythic elements, creating a lush tapestry and rendering the story a distinct complexion. On a more personal level, the novel captured the ugly side of humanity, our selfishness, and the extent we go to feed our selfish desires. Secrets, while uneven, provided a peek into the prose of Nuruddin Farah, a pillar of contemporary African literature.

Rating

58%

Characters (30%) – 17%
Plot (30%) – 
15%
Writing (25%) – 
17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
9%

It has been a while since I started reading. I couldn’t believe it when, towards the end of 2021, I was on the cusp of reading my 900th novel. Since it was, at least to me, an important milestone, I thought hard about what book to occupy this place in my reading journey. In the end, I opted for a writer whose works I have never read before. After several deliberations, I settled on Nurrudin Farah’s Secrets. It was quite a risk for I have never read any of Farah’s works and it was only recently that I heard of him. Nevertheless, he was considered by many a Titan of African literature. That was enough to convince me to have Secrets as my 900th read. Like Hungary’s Péter Nádas and László Krasznahorkai, it was during the lead-up to the Nobel Prize in Literature that I first came across the Somali writer. It was enough to pique my interest and I was more than stoked when I was able to obtain a copy of one of his works, Secrets, towards the end of 2021.

I struggled with the book, I guess because it was new territory for me. The premise alone was promising: it was about a country one rarely read about in literature. After Nadifa Mohamed, Farah was the second Somali writer whose work I read. The story dragged and the alternating perspectives weighed down on me. Nonno was an interesting character while Kalaman was a weak one. The story was also bogged down by several details and when the “secret” was finally revealed in the concluding pages of the story, I lost my enthusiasm. Despite this unfavorable first experience, I am looking forward to reading more of Farah’s writing.

Book Specs

Author: Nuruddin Farah
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 1999
Number of Pages: 298
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

Set against the backdrop of Somalia’s devastating civil war, Secrets is a stunning revelatory novel by one of the major figures of modern African literature. The city of Mogadiscio is in crisis when the protagonist, Kalaman, receives an unexpected house guest, his childhood crush returned from America. Sensual and demanding, Sholoongo announces her intention to have his child, pulling Kalaman back into a past full of doubts and secrets. As Kalaman begins to tear apart the myth that is his family, he uncovers the startling truth of his own conception.

Secrets displays Farah’s talents to the fullest. His “daring, lush, urbane voice” (The New York Times Book Review) evokes the beauty and tragedy that is Africa. It will stand as one of the great works of modern African literature.

About the Author

Nuruddin Farah (Somali: Nuuradiin Faarax, Arabic: نورالدين فارح) was born on November 24, 1945, in Baidoa, Somaliland (now Somalia) to a merchant and the well-known Somali poet Aleeli Faduma. Farah received his education from different schools in Somalia and in adjacent Ethiopia and at the colonial-era Institutio Magistrale in Mogadishu. . He studied English, Arabic, and Amharic. In 1963, three years after Somalia’s independence, Farah fled the Somali Galbeed due to escalating border conflicts. After working for the Ministry of Education, he pursued a degree in philosophy, literature, and sociology at Panjab University in Chandigarh, India where he studied from 1966 to 1970. He then moved to England where he attended London University from 1974 to 1975. He pursued his master’s degree n theatre at Essex University (1975–76). In 1990,  Farah received a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service and moved to Berlin.

Farah’s earlier short stories were written in Somali. He eventually decided to write in English after the only typewriter available was in English; this was the time he was studying in India. This, however, played a seminal role in introducing Farah and his works to a broader audience. In 1970, he published his first full-fledged novel From a Crooked Rib. He followed it up with A Naked Needle (1976), Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1983); the last three books comprised his first trilogy, collectively referred to as the Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship. Following the publication of his second novel, Farah received a caveat that the Somali government plans to arrest him over the content of his works. He then spent over two decades in a self-imposed exile he spent teaching in different countries such as the United States, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Sudan, India, and Nigeria.

The warning also did not stop Farah from his literary endeavors. He completed a second set of a trilogy, Blood in the Sun, comprised of novels Maps (1986), Gifts (1992), and Secrets (1998). Links (2003), Knots (2006), and Crossbones (2011) constituted another trilogy, the Past Imperfect Trilogy. His most recent novel, North of Dawn, was published in 2018. Farah was also a playwright and has written short stories and essays that appeared in publications and journals such as the London Review of Books, The New York Times, and Okike: An African Journal of New Writing. Aside from being a renowned writer, Farah is an important scholar in Somali Studies. He serves on the International Advisory Board of Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, published by Macalester College.

Over the course of his career, Farah received several awards from different parts of the world. He received the 1994 Premio Cavour in Italy for the Italian translation of Close Sesame, the Kurt Tucholsky Prize in Germany, the Lettre Ulysses Award in Berlin, and in 1998, the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature. The French edition of Gifts won him the 1998 St Malo Literature Festival prize. Gifts was also awarded the 1993 Best Novel in Zimbabwe. Additionally, Farah is a perennial nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

After two decades of exile, Farah was able to enter his country for the first time in the summer of 1996. He juggles his time between Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Cape Town, South Africa.