Monday, March 02, 2009

OTC 1: "Sweet and Sour Milk" -- Somalia


My first book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge is Sweet and Sour Milk by Nuruddin Farah, published in 1979, the first volume of his  trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.  

Set in the late 1970s, the novel deals with life under the harsh, repressive government of the Somali dictator known as The General.  Loyaan, a dentist with no real interest in politics, learns that his twin brother Soyaan has possibly been involved in actions against The General's regime and its Soviet allies and has apparently been poisoned in consequence.  As he attempts to find out the truth, he encounters a conspiracy on the part of the government to rewrite history and to cast his brother in the role of a steadfast supporter of The General who died praising the revolution that gave The General power in the first place.  Their parents, for varying reasons,  accept the government's version of the story and try to talk Loyaan out of questioning the situation.  Several friends of the twins are arrested and imprisoned, and Loyaan is warned repeatedly to accept the government's "truth" and stop causing trouble or there will be serious consequences.  Finally, just as he becomes convinced that Soyaan was in fact poisoned by a KGB doctor, he is told that Soyaan was about to have been "rewarded" for his services to the state by being given a minor diplomatic post in a Soviet-bloc country in Europe, and , further, he is informed that, as a tribute to his brother, the government is assigning him to that post.  The novel ends with a knock at the door as the authorities arrive to escort him to the plane which will first take him to Moscow for indoctrination into his future diplomatic duties; he is, in effect, being sent into what appears to be perpetual exile for his refusal to cooperate.

Sweet and Sour Milk is a devastating evocation of what life was like (and continues to be still in some African nations) under the dictatorships that all too often came to power in many African countries in the wake of colonialism.  Farah himself was exiled from Somalia several years before beginning the trilogy for having criticized the government in an earlier novel, so he knows all too well the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere that exists under such a regime and portrays in exacting detail the frustration and powerlessness that the individual experiences if he attempts to confront such a powerful government which has a vested interest in maintaining the fictions of its own creation.  The other two novels in the trilogy, Sardines (1981) and Close Sesame (1983), further develop these themes as well as others, while dealing with related characters; taken as a whole, the trilogy gives us a clearer picture of the group of conspirators to which Soyaan belonged and its eventual -- and inevitable -- outcome.  


12 Comments:

Blogger bethany said...

WOW, that is an intense book for your first read! Where are you going to read about next?

Thanks so much for the review, and for posting your link!

Happy reading!

11:11 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Congrats on finishing your first adventure! Thanks for the review. Sounds like an interesting book. Do you plan on reading the rest of the trilogy?

10:25 AM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

Thanks for stopping by, both of you.

Sarah -- I actually read the entire trilogy over the weekend; once I got into it, I found I couldn't stop until I learned how it all worked out.

The second volume Sardines is especially interesting; not only does it continue to develop the themes of life under a repressive dictatorship, it also has a great deal to say about the secondary position of women in Somali society. Among other gender-related subjects, it has a great deal to say about the horrible practices of female circumcision and infibulation common in Somalia and other parts of Africa. The title "Sardines" refers to the attitude towards women, that they're all alike and can be treated as essentially interchangeable and even disposable.

I had meant to mention, the "Sweet and Sour Milk" of the title of the first volume appears to refer to the view of itself the repressive government wishes to foster on its citizens and the truth which is "sour." Relatedly, the title applies to the twins, "sweet" to the government's version of Soyaan's life as a hero, "sour" to Loyaan's when he refuses to accept and support the government's lies about his brother.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Gavin said...

Thanks for this review. I recognize Farah's name but have never read any of his work so I'll have to add him to my monstrous TBR pile.

I hope you like Petterson, his words paint pictures and evoke sensations, at least for me.

I love The Jackdaw's Nest!

7:29 PM  
Blogger Ramya said...

I wanted to read a book by Farah for last year's OT Challenge - knots. But I never got around to doing it.. I have Farah again on this year's list but after reading your review, I might just pick up this book and the others in the trilogy as well! Thanks for an amazing review!:)

7:08 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

This sounds so interesting. I'm compiling a list of "books I might read for the OT challenge", and this is definitely going on it!

1:22 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

Thanks for stopping by, Gavin, Ramya, and Elizabeth, and commenting. Farah is an excellent novelist who deserves to be more widely known in the U. S. particularly; I hope if you try him you'll like his work.

Ramya -- Knots is, I believe, the second novel of another trilogy that he's still currently writing (I think Links is the first volume of that trilogy). He also has completed yet another one, called Blood in the Sun which consists of Maps, Gifts, and Secrets; I've not read any of those as yet but plan to.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hedgie: I'm horribly out of touch with African literature in general, so it's nice to have another author's name from there to consider other than the usual suspects. Glad you decided to join Bethany's challenge this year!

8:42 AM  
Blogger One Swede Read said...

I too am guilty of not being too aware of African literature, so any recommendations help... :) Thanks for the review!!

/Your fellow OT-er

2:50 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

Richard & One Swede Read -- Thanks for stopping by. If you're looking for other African writers, last year's Africa Reading Challenge home thread can give you a good cross-section of modern African writing.

6:58 PM  
Blogger One Swede Read said...

Ooh, great link! Thank you!!!!

11:20 AM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

No problem; glad to help.

12:27 PM  

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