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Book Review: Knots by Nuruddin Farah

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Grant
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Book Review: Knots by Nuruddin Farah

Postby Grant » Sun Jan 28, 2007 2:40 pm

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A WOMAN CAUGHT IN THE CROSS FIRE
Mother, stricken by son's death, returns to Somalia to reclaim her family home, now inhabited by warlords
- Reviewed by Megan Harlan
Sunday, January 28, 2007



Knots

By Nuruddin Farah

RIVERHEAD BOOKS; 422 PAGES; $25.95



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"When Cambara, the 6-foot-tall woman at the center of "Knots," returns after almost two decades' absence to Mogadishu, her native city, the Somali capital is all but unrecognizable to her: The continuing civil war has smashed whole neighborhoods to pieces, roving bands of men and boys armed with AK-47's daily terrorize the city's inhabitants, and, because of the recent extremist rulings of fundamentalist Islamic courts, theaters, bars and many art forms are outlawed, and women must fully veil themselves in public.
Why would Cambara, who has long enjoyed a comfortable, independent life as a makeup studio owner and actress in Toronto, risk her safety to return to such a place? This question propels the ambitious, viscerally detailed but slightly overdetermined 10th novel of Nuruddin Farah, a Somali writer now living in South Africa. His previous works -- noted for their feminist and secular humanist bents -- have earned him buzz as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Farah structures the novel like a classic hero's saga -- one starring a strong, complicated and impulsive woman. Cambara leaves her home after suffering a terrible awakening, in this case wrenching grief (we learn early on that her young son drowned while her lawyer husband and his mistress were otherwise engaged in the bedroom). As for why she feels she must venture to Mogadishu, Cambara plans to do nothing less than reclaim the house her family was forced to abandon there, which has been taken over by a warlord and his posse.

Events begin just as Cambara arrives in the heat, chaos and violence of the city. She stays with her cousin, Zaak, a vile character who wastes his days chewing qaat (a mild narcotic) and who once beat a former wife and their three daughters almost to death. Zaak's loathsome presence dominates the book's opening chapters, and Farah spares no subtlety in pointing out his symbolic import: "Cambara thinks that maybe his current physical and mental conditions are symptomatic of the country's collapse, a metaphor for it." This present-day, third-person narrative is skillfully shot through with flashbacks to Cambara's past, including scenes from her unhappy marriage to unfaithful lawyer Wardi; her earlier marriage of convenience to the hideous Zaak (with her help he was able to immigrate to Canada before returning to Somalia); her struggles to find success as an actress; her complicated relationship with her formidable steamroller of a mother, Arda (who talked Cambara into marrying Zaak). Last, but far from least, Cambara's transformative friendships with other women are depicted, including her bond with a fellow Somali Canadian, Raxma, owner of an import-export business whose connections in Somalia will provide Cambara with invaluable help.

Indeed, if Cambara is a hero in the classical sense, then Farah imagines her most powerful hidden weapon to be her female friendships. Thanks to Raxma, Cambara hooks up with a group called the Women's Network, whose mission is to aid local women in distress -- whether by providing bodyguards or poisoning abusive husbands.

Cambara must draw on all of her talents as an actress, her physical courage and the unflagging support of the Women's Network to finagle her way into her family's former homestead and outwit the vicious thugs ensconced there. How she does it also provides a fascinating window into a society riven by extremist factions, with moderates caught in the cross fire.

Along the way, Cambara reaches out to two young boys, a sweet, underage bodyguard called SilkHair and a mysterious urchin named Gacal, giving them her son's old clothes and dubbing them her "alternative family." She also falls for an activist, Bile, who harbors tragic secrets of his own.

Unfortunately, the story veers away from the harsh challenges posed by the warlords, the religious fundamentalists and others who initially stood in Cambara's way to retrieve her sense of home in Mogadishu. Instead of letting these conflicts fully play themselves out, Farah introduces a rather softer final plotline, one involving Cambara's spontaneous plan to stage -- rather unexpectedly -- a puppet show for peace. Given the real dangers Farah so carefully placed in Cambara's path, the tidy finale seems more idealized than realistic.

Farah has written all of his novels in English -- one of five languages he speaks fluently (his native Somali did not have a standardized written form until the 1970s). His prose style tends to be quite formal, to the point, occasionally, of being mannered ("her negative response being instantaneous, visceral, scurrilous, and as insalubrious as a city surrounded by swamps fraught with ill-favored affliction").

But of the many things to admire in "Knots" -- the unsparing depictions of a war-ravaged city, its vast cast of complex characters -- queenly, dynamic and unyielding Cambara stands at the forefront.

If the plot abruptly departs from the mean streets of Mogadishu for a gentler, private world ruled by art, theater and love, it makes her no less a memorable character: a woman who subversively used the veil to hide her identity while she fought the hero's fight."

Megan Harlan is a Bay Area writer.

Page M - 1
URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f ... NKK981.DTL


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©2007 San Francisco Chronicle

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Postby muslim-man » Sun Jan 28, 2007 2:45 pm

Grant,

Nice piece there! I always enjoyed Nurudin Farah's literary work, but I've not read this book, it sounds interesting, will remember to put on my must read list. Thanks a bunch!

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Postby Seoma [Crawler2] » Sun Jan 28, 2007 2:46 pm

Intersting read. I'll get a copy of it, inshallah.

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Postby Lil_Cutie.. » Sun Jan 28, 2007 2:47 pm

Hmm. Reminds me of .. Confused

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Postby michael_ital » Sun Jan 28, 2007 2:55 pm

That sounds good. Just last night I was looking at "Maps". Has anyone read it?

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Postby muslim-man » Sun Jan 28, 2007 2:58 pm

[quote="michael_ital"]That sounds good. Just last night I was looking at "Maps". Has anyone read it?[/quote]

Here! Marvelous book. The story draws you in and the topic about the 1977 war is well chosen.

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Postby Lil_Cutie.. » Sun Jan 28, 2007 3:03 pm

[quote="michael_ital"]That sounds good. Just last night I was looking at "Maps". Has anyone read it?[/quote]



Is it that political one?

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Postby Seoma [Crawler2] » Sun Jan 28, 2007 3:04 pm

[quote="michael_ital"]That sounds good. Just last night I was looking at "Maps". Has anyone read it?[/quote]

I read it and i can say that i enjoyed reading it. He uses alot of codes and symbols.

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Postby michael_ital » Sun Jan 28, 2007 3:42 pm

That's great, i'll pick it up this week. Thanks for the reviews.

Cutie

http://www.amazon.ca/Maps-Nuruddin-Fara ... F8&s=books

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Postby Galol » Sun Jan 28, 2007 4:26 pm

I only read his first novel("From a Crooked Rib") and was enchanted. I could see the `alien' concepts he was exploring like women's rights were chiming with the views of my generation in 70s kin Somalia.

Great to see he is still writing.


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