A BLEAK BOOK YOU CAN'T PUT DOWN

It's easy to see why Nuruddin Farah's name keeps coming up as a likely recipient of a Nobel Prize in Literature. He had the good fortune--from a writer's point of view--of being a native of Somalia, a Third World country whose recent past has been cursed first by dictatorship, then by civil war. But his eligibility for the Nobel is much more than circumstantial. His books debate the great themes of people versus the state, clan versus nationality, family versus the individual. It's just the sort of writing that stirs the hearts of those high-minded judges in Stockholm--and just the kind of book that usually puts you to sleep by the second chapter. That's the noteworthy thing about Farah. His strange and compelling books don't just keep you awake. They haunt you.

"Links," Farah's ninth novel, begins with one murder and ends with another. No sooner has Jeeblah, the protagonist, disembarked from an airplane at the Mogadishu airport than he sees a man shot dead for no good reason. Quite sensibly, Jeeblah is horrified. He has come from America, where he lives as an exile, to find his mother's grave and make peace with her memory. But old friends and enemies and their troubles keep ensnaring him. By the time the last murder in the book occurs, Jeeblah himself is deeply implicated. How he changes from bystander to accessory is the puzzle posed by "Links": what circumstances are necessary to make a decent man turn to killing?

Writing in a plain, almost awkward English, Farah does not subscribe to the theory that an author should show, not tell. Why not bluntly tell the truth? he seems to ask. Isn't life oblique enough without a writer arting it up? This straightforwardness makes the mysteries at the heart of this searing novel even more unnerving. What are the ties of place and blood, and how do they survive in us even when we think we're beyond all that? "Links" is rough-hewn art, but art it surely is. Like Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, writers to whom he can be favorably compared, Farah poses questions that, once asked, never go away.

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