Somalian novelist Nuruddin Farah has lived in exile since 1976. He published Secrets in 1998, not long after his first visit in twenty years to his homeland. The heavy toll of political repression is one theme. Like many others living in Mogadishu (Somalia’s capital) where the novel is set, the protagonist Kalaman wonders about the past that his family has hidden, especially about the costs to their safety. Fear of forces that largely go unnamed is a constant in Kalaman’s life, as he worries about how he will fare as the dictatorship continues.
The blurred line between reality and fantasy is another theme. A woman from Kalaman's past appears, but is she a real person or an apparition from his imagination? She was a child marked by prophecy for death and raised by lions. Her own version of her destiny—expecting Kalaman to make her pregnant—is both compelling and repulsive to him.
These and other manifestations of the power of the ancient beliefs form a dominant motif, as Kalaman both desires to escape their force and sees their presence as necessary if Somalia is to find its place in the increasingly anonymous modern world. The intermingling of political and religious power is also a primary theme, expressed through supernatural idioms such as powerful animals derived from mythology who take active roles in aiding or harming the human characters. The physical and elemental forces of sexuality as complex components of human survival also are interwoven into the novel.
Kalaman’s quest to uncover the secrets of his own family parallels Somalia’s need to come to grips with its past, for Farah implies that the dictatorship did not arise in a void. Kalaman leaves the city for his family’s farm and encounters generations of his family as well as the nurse who raised him, amidst an escalating political crisis that makes him distrust his own understanding of reality. The theme of distorted reality, as politics and warfare make normal society unrecognizable, also permeates the entire novel.