Nuruddin Farah once remarked that he wrote to keep his homeland of Somalia alive. He has worked alone in this project, because he is the only novelist in English from the East African nation, which was formed in 1960 out of British and Italian colonies. Beginning with his first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970), Farah has examined Somalia from a wide range of perspectives, including the country’s traditional, political, social, historical, and mythological mix. After the publication of his second novel, A Naked Needle, in 1976, Farah went into exile when the nation’s dictatorship, headed by Siyad Barre, declared him an enemy of the state and planned to sentence him to thirty years in prison. He remained in Europe for several years, then settled in Nigeria, where he now lives. Continuing to condemn the harsh Somali regime that called itself an experiment in “scientific socialism,” he published a trilogy, Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1983), under the collective title “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.” In 1996, he visited his turbulent homeland for the first time in twenty years.
Secrets focuses on thirty-three-year-old Kalaman, who owns a computer business in Mogadiscio, Somalia’s capital city. The desire to unravel his family’s secrets advances the narrative, which introduces several other characters who are fully realized but remain on the edge of Kalaman’s personal struggle and internal anguish. He is, in fact, a walking catalogue of neuroses, given to depression, inferiority, and guilt that are manifested through migraine headaches, stomach aches, nightmares, and sexual inadequacy. Yet Farah does not treat this disturbed character in a typically Western manner by probing his psychological condition or sending him into therapy. Instead, he takes Kalaman through a series of experiences—some real, some fantastic—that reveal the truth to him but do not heal him. The narrative works on two levels, the individual and the national. Kalaman with his bundle of obsessions and conflicts represents the condition of Somalia just before it erupts into civil war. This conjunction between character and community remains an oblique one, much to Farah’s credit. But it is this devious and indirect interaction between the private and the public that lends the novel its power.
At the opening, Kalaman returns home to find that he has an unexpected visitor who has entered his locked apartment—a feat that is never explained. His guest is Sholoongo, a childhood friend and his first sexual partner, whom he has not seen for twenty years. She has just returned from the United States, where she has become a famous “shape-shifter, a shaman,” who can alter her own body and nature as well as those of other people. Her brother, an important figure in the American gay movement, has come back as well, even though the significance of his presence is never fully explained. Much to Kalaman’s horror, Sholoongo announces that she has returned to Somalia to become pregnant by him, a demand that shocks and frightens him. Sholoongo, it is revealed casually, was reportedly a “duugan,” a child born to be buried according to Somali belief. Abandoned to die by her mother, Sholoongo was nurtured by a lioness and eventually returned to her family; she was generally unwelcome at home and within the community, given her unauspicious beginning and her perceived occult powers.
Early in the narrative, thus, the reader recognizes that it will be necessary to suspend belief and accept the superstitions and mythology of Somalia. These traditions appear alongside a contemporary urban world complete with automobiles, computers, telephone answering machines, high-rise apartments, and other modernities. In another uncanny twist, Kalaman hears on his car radio that an elephant has just sought out a notorious ivory trader and killed him in revenge for the trader’s part in the slaughter of fellow elephants. This may seem an unlikely coincidence, but everyone accepts the event without question. At another point, a helpful crow repairs a stalled car for a stranded driver. Animals and birds of all kinds play significant roles throughout.
All the while, the political struggle goes on in the background, as the fall of the unnamed dictator draws near. Gunshots ring out in the night. Roadblocks and checkpoints dot the city, manned by armed men who...
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