Reading Nuruddin Farah: The individual, the novel & the idea of home

Reading Nuruddin Farah: The individual, the novel & the idea of home. F. Fiona Moolla. James Currey, Oxford, 2014, pp. 210. ISBN 9781847010919 (Hb) £45

In this study of the whole of Nurrudin Farah’s fictional writing F. Fiona Moolla takes as her starting point Lukacsian theory of the novel. Her weighty first chapter explores with admirable clarity the idea of the individual in relation to the novel. She is interested in identity as a key modern European concept, in the idea of the individual as a morally self-validating hero and the subject of ‘transcendental homelessness’ (Lukacs, Theory of the Novel 41), and in examining how the ‘nation state is the necessary political resolution of philosophical individualism’ (28). Besides Lukacs she draws significantly on the work of Joe Slaughter, repeating, possibly a little too often, her interest in what Slaughter calls the ‘tautological-teleological’ mechanism of the novel. She is also centrally concerned in chapter two with theory of the Bildungsroman. This perspective is perhaps surprising for one who writing about a Somali novelist, but her central argument is that Farah is writing against Somali notions of clan, tradition and Islam, and that his well known interests in the autonomous individual, in women’s rights and in a ‘free’ Somalia are both reflected by, and embedded to a considerable extent in, his engagement with the form of his novels.

This central concept is developed in chapter two by a focus on From a Crooked Rib seen as a classic Bildungsroman. Our heroine, Ebla, moves towards a position where she can claim self-knowledge and self-determination, asserting rationality against ‘mindless tradition and religion’ (72). This movement towards rational autonomy, seen in Farah’s view, according to Moolla, as central to his vision for salvation of the nation as well as the individual, is key to all his novels and what she thinks makes them examples of classic novelistic form. Indeed in chapter three she states, ‘all Farah’s novels are Bildungsromans’ (75).

Chapter three, on Sardines and Gifts develops the idea of the chapter’s title, ‘The ‘Gynocentric’ Bildungsroman’, as exemplified by Medina, the heroine of Sardines who epitomizes female self-realisation, not only educating her menfolk but resisting military oppression. It is in this chapter that Moolla explores most acutely Farah’s much quoted idea that ‘only when women are free can society be free’.

The more experimental novels A Naked Needle and Sweet & Sour Milk are the focus in chapter four. And here Moolla has no truck with Farah’s assertion that the former novel is not influenced by James Joyce’s Ulysses. Indeed she not only reads A Naked Needle against Ulysses, but postulates that Sweet & Sour Milk takes its detective form from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, arguing that ‘Beckett and Joyce are key influences on Farah’ (119). This leads into chapter five focusing on Close Sesame where Moolla engages with a significant, daring and to me at least somewhat problematic argument about ‘the African novel’. Reading still through the lens of classic novel theory she argues that texts which do not centrally engage with the self-reflexive hero/ine must be seen as ‘failed’ novels, Tolstoy and a panoply of African and Asian writers notwithstanding. Marxist readings, the epic and ‘alternative worldviews’ cannot be accommodated by the novel because they are apparently ‘insufficiently “literary” to be included in the category of world literature’ (124). Farah apparently can be included because he writes, according to Moolla within novelistic form. The problem here, and my problem with a book I found extremely interesting, is that classic novel theory exposes itself as far too inflexible to deal with the reality of the postcolonial world. It may be acceptable to argue that Rushdie and Ousmane ‘fail’ according to some technical definition of the novel according to Lukacsian theory, but to argue that War and Peace, Midnight’s People or God’s Bits of Wood are ‘insufficiently literary’ to be recognized as world literature is patently nonsensical.

Chapters six and seven deal with Maps and Secrets, and the third trilogy of Links, Knots and Crossbones respectively. Here Moolla allows for more discussion of the political imperative in Farah’s novels, which is fairly well trodden ground. She acknowledges his commitment to supporting the reconstruction of the Somali state and society and his deep concern with politics, notions of freedom and women’s liberation. But she does query what she sees as a problematic positioning in Links in the ultra-individualistic argument ‘that ultimately the failure of each and every individual is responsible for Somali dissolution’ (161). I do sympathise with her doubting that the individual, even if they make ‘links’ with others, is in any position to resolve the intractable failure of Somalia as a nation-state.

Moolla makes a strongly argued case throughout for her readings of Farah and literary theory, and this book is undoubtedly essential reading for anyone studying Somalia’s preeminent writer. She is also an interesting read for anyone interested in ideas about the African novel. I think her limited vision of the ‘literary’ novel is misguided. So very many postcolonial writers have produced work in experimental form precisely because the European novel model cannot contain their worldviews that I think it is the definition of the novel that has to move rather than those writers being excluded from the world canon of the literary. But Moolla’s work made me think and reconsider a number of my views about not only Farah but African literature as a whole, and I am duly grateful for the intellectual stimulation.

Reviewed by: Jane Plastow, University of Leeds.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 76 (Winter 2014/15), pp. 93-95]