Magic vs. Modernity

Nuruddin Farah

At first blush, Secrets, the new novel by Somali author Nuruddin Farah, seems to be yet another case of typical Third World magical realism. It has all the usual hallmarks: village life, childhood infatuations, and--surprise, surprise--the leitmotif of MENSTRUAL BLOOD (yes, it has weird supernatural powers; yes, it freaks guys out; and yes, it empowers the female characters in strange and mystical ways). Birds make ominous appearances at seminal moments, and certain characters may or may not have "animal natures" that turn them into elephants bent on trampling their enemies to death.

The surprising thing about Secrets, however, is how Farah has set his version of magical realism against a thoroughly modern background. It's Mogadishu in the early 1990s--just when clan warfare is starting to get out of hand--and the main character in the midst of this chaos is a 33-year-old computer programmer named Kalaman. By his own admission, Kalaman does this work because he likes to fool around with machines; essentially, he's a Somali nerd, and he seems utterly at ease in his conventional, late-20th-century existence.

This lifestyle has come under threat, and not just from the machine-gun-wielding yahoos riding around the city in stolen jeeps. In fact, to hear Kalaman describe it, civil war is merely a nuisance compared to the sudden appearance of his childhood girlfriend, Sholoongo. She's come home from the U.S. and broken into his apartment; now she demands that he impregnate her. He'd like to throw her out on her ear, but--and here's where the magical realism starts to kick in--he's afraid of what she might do to him, since she's some kind of shaman with weird powers over men (cue: the menstrual blood).

Sholoongo's return to Somalia also worries Kalaman's mother, a pistol-packing career woman who'll protect her son from this harpy at all costs. Her grudge against Sholoongo has something to do with a series of old secrets dating back to their earlier existence in an ancestral village, and involving taboo sex between kin. All of this is gradually teased out by the family patriarch, Nonno, who sits on his front porch placidly smoking and dropping hints about past misdeeds through cryptic animal stories.

Nuruddin Farah shows signs of being the next big thing in what is known as world literature. The first Somali author to write and publish in English, Farah collects dust-jacket blurbs from the likes of Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe, and Nadine Gordimer. This spring he received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, a prestigious award with a track record for calling attention to future greats such as Gabriel García Márquez, Max Frisch, and Octavio Paz.

What separates Farah from some of his colleagues, especially the Latin Americans grouped under Márquez's banner, is the modern flavor of his brand of magical realism. Too much "great" Third World literature of the last four decades has been located in timeless, placeless, mystical settings, sanitized of any reference to the real world. The style has a certain poetic appeal, and it's not hard to understand why postcolonialist writers might, by political necessity, embrace fantasy and shun modernity: Much of the 20th century in the Third World has come with a "Made in the U.S.A." label. But, paradoxically, magical realism has also left readers--especially First World readers--with an image of Third World life that is fabulistic and quaint.

Farah, like Rushdie before him, has found a way to right this wrong. Without turning his back on the aesthetic, he manages to thrust it into the modern world. His quirky prose may be the best example of this: In a passage describing the mystical properties of the xidinxiito, an "ill-omened bird," he writes, "Nonno's voice had in it a touch of humidity, which affected his delivery, making his words emerge curled up like the pages a fax machine spits out."

Needless to say, you won't find fax-machine analogies in One Hundred Years of Solitude. But you will find fax machines in Colombia, as well as Mexico, Malaysia, and Mogadishu. Farah acknowledges this fact nonchalantly, and Secrets' willingness to let modern words and worlds co-exist with mystical ones might just breathe some relevance back into magical realism.

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