It's easy to see why Nuruddin Farah's name keeps coming up as a likely recipient of a Nobel Prize in Literature. He has 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. Farah himself was persecuted and exiled during the years of dictatorship. But his eligibility for the Nobel is much more than circumstantial. He has turned not just his hard life but the life of his native country into the heart of his fiction. His books debate the great themes--people versus the state, clan versus nationality, family versus the individual--just the sort of writing that stirs the hearts of those high-minded judges in Stockholm. Just the kind of book that usually puts you to sleep by the second chapter. And that's the noteworthy thing about Farah. His strange and compelling books don't just keep you awake. They haunt you.
"Links" (336 pages. Riverhead Books), Farah's ninth novel, begins and ends with a murder. 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 is a college professor, to find his mother's grave and make peace with her memory. But old friends and enemies keep getting in his way. In no time, he's mixed up in the efforts of two friends to get their kidnapped children back. By the time the last murder in the book occurs, Jeeblah himself is deeply implicated.
How he moves from innocent bystander to accessory to murder is the story--and the question--of "Links": what circumstances are necessary to turn a decent, ordinary man into a killer? Worse, Jeeblah can feel himself changing--"he had lost his way in the labyrinthine politics of the place"--but is powerless to stop it, any more than he can stop breathing. Early in the story, he realizes that perhaps "he wasn't as exempt as he had believed from the contagion that was of a piece with civil wars... perhaps he was beginning to catch the madness from the food he had eaten, the water he had drunk, the company he had kept."
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? He says as much near the end of "Links": Jeeblah "was visiting a land where demons never took a break. There was so much distrust that demons didn't need to top things up, make sure there was enough to go around, give everyone his or her commensurate share of misery."
This straightforwardness makes the real mysteries at the heart of this searing novel even more unnerving. What are the ties of family and place and blood, and how do they survive in us even when we think we're beyond all that? "Links" is a roughhewn work of art, but art it surely is. Like Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, writers with whom he can be favorably compared, Farah poses questions that, once asked, never go away.