Be forewarned: You are entering the dense, bewildering forests of Somalian novelist Nuruddin Farah's imagination. You will be startled by shape shifters who straddle the human and animal kingdoms. You will be oppressed by elaborate self-reflection. (Here is how "Maps" begins: "You sit, in contemplative posture, your features agonized and your expressions pained ... Yes. You are a question to yourself.") You will feel the blade of circumcision (both male and female), taste menstrual blood (again, strangely, both male and female). You will find every sexual taboo -- rape, incest, homosexuality, sex with animals and young boys -- overturned.
This is a singular place where Kierkegaard collides with spirit-world djinns, where Jungian dreams and local folklore converge with the rattle of modern fax machines and the gunfire of clan violence. You will find here the shifting realities of the Horn of Africa, but not brought to you by National Geographic or CNN: Farah sets off on a warping exploration of Somalian life and consciousness that, as one critic has put it, "manages to be both pre-Islamic and post-modern."
In his bold approach to questions of modern African identity and sexuality, Farah -- who was awarded the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which ranks just below the Nobel in literary prestige -- is arguably the most important African novelist of the late 20th century. As Arcade reissues the first two volumes of his "Blood in Sun" trilogy this month ("Secrets," the final volume, came out last year), it is worth adding that with the feverish and bodacious language of which he is a master, he is also the most astonishing, inventive, exuberant and mind-blowing.
After being exiled as a result of his first trilogy (aggressively titled "Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship," it was reissued by Graywolf Press in 1992), Farah said that his goal was "to keep my country alive by writing about it." And though recent Somalian history is indeed etched into this second trilogy -- "Maps" takes place during the 1977 Ogadan border war with Ethiopia, and "Secrets" unwinds on the eve of civil war in the early '90s -- it's the personal crises of his characters that engulf the reader. A good deal of social and political baggage travels along with the personal dramas, of course. "Maps" dwells on the effects of Somalia's historically carved-up borders; "Gifts" cleverly exposes the motives behind the "gift" of aid to the Third World.
But Farah's obsessive search for identity -- personal, familial, social, national -- echoes through the series. "Maps," the most innovative and challenging of the three books, follows Askar, an orphaned wonder-child who has visions of his own birth (and his mother's death) and whose mouth bleeds as if menstruating. Askar grows up in the nurturing -- and titillating -- embrace of his Ethiopian guardian, Misra, until he sets off to study in Mogadishu, the capital, and is shaken by the war that took his father's life. The boy's growing self-awareness is informed in part by the maps he uses to trace the shape of his people's land and his own allegiances.
"Gifts," the most linear of the books, concerns a single mother's battle for independence and self-fulfillment. The story revolves around the discovery of an abandoned baby and the riddle of its parents. "Secrets," the trilogy's final volume, extends the themes of mysterious paternity and consuming social ties. In this novel, Kalaman, a 33-year-old Mogadishu computer programmer, struggles against the pull of ethnic loyalty. ("I was no member of a clan, I was a professional," he insists.) Kalaman's search into his family's hidden history is complicated by the return of his childhood playmate, Sholoongo, who long ago cast a spell on him by serving him her menstrual blood in a thimble. (As I said, it gets weird.) Yet the more Kalaman digs into the secrets of his origins, the more the looming national crisis consumes his own: "I saw death being forecast, death being anticipated, I saw death stalking the entire country, pursuing it with the determination of an elephant gone amok."
As a rule, the most fascinating and complex of Farah's characters are women. There is Misra in "Maps," the Ethiopian outsider (and possible betrayer of the Somalian cause) who raises Askar. There is Duniya in "Gifts," the single working mother, widowed and divorced, experiencing love for the first time. And of course there is Sholoongo in "Secrets," the sexual sorceress just returned from America (where she presided over the All-America Shape-shifters' Union).
While subverting traditional gender roles, Farah also exposes the strong undercurrents of sexuality in Islamic society. Askar's cosmopolitan Mogadishu uncle, Hilaal, ends a soaring riff on life, the cosmos, and Freud with the blunt nugget of insight "Truth is body"; more to the point, he adds, "Sooner or later, sex." And the sex Farah reveals is unashamedly polymorphic. In the closing scene of "Secrets," Sholoongo "takes" -- in multiple creative ways -- Kalaman's grandfather, Nonno, and quite literally screws him to death. The scene is disorienting, tragic, maddening: vintage Farah.
While African writing as a whole has been suffering an extended drought (with the exception of Nigeria's Ben Okri and a fistful of South African authors), Farah has been breaking remarkable new ground. What he calls the "pastures of the imagination" comprise, for him, a redrawn map of Africa, of the Somalian psyche, of individual abandonment and belonging. And yet they also include modern Somalia, "a nation with a split personality," at war with itself, exploding with ancient hatreds and modern feuds. Nuruddin Farah is something of a literary shape shifter himself. Following the trail of these three books into the pastures and the forests of his strange imagination will surely put you under his spell.