Sunday, February 14, 2010

Brief Review: "Maps" by Nuruddin Farah

Maps by Nurrudin Farah (Volume I of the Blood in the Sun trilogy), 1986

Maps develops the theme of identity in its many manifestations -- personal, family, and national -- through a simple story which is narrated through stylistically complex means, and in so doing explores the various aspects of its central theme in depth while raising significant questions about the multiple nature of identity.

The story itself focuses on the central character, Askar, who is born in the disputed African region of Ogaden of parents from that region, which is the scene of ongoing, sporadic conflict between Ethiopia, which was granted control of Ogaden following World War II, and Somalia which claims it as Somalian territory because it's inhabited by Somali-speaking people. Orphaned immediately at birth, Askar is taken in by Misra, herself an exile from Ethiopia and raised by her until about age 7 or 8. He develops an incredibly close relationship with Misra and comes to see her as his birth-mother, even though he know she isn't. Then, when full-scale war breaks out between Somalia and Ethiopia (in 1977-1978), he is sent to the family of his birth-mother's brother in Mogadishu where he is taken in and raised as his uncle and aunt's own child, they being childless; again, he comes to develop a close relationship with them, as well. His uncle wishes for him to receive a college education and become a teacher, but other family relatives want him to join the Ogaden resistance movement (in which his father had died) and carry on where his father left off in seeking to free the Ogaden from Ethiopia. On the eve of his decision regarding his future course of action, Misra arrives in Mogadishu and wishes to see him; this event complicates his life and his decision because she is believed to have betrayed a resistance cell to the Ethiopians and caused the deaths of 600 people. His final meeting with her and he subsequent fate lay the groundwork for his ultimate decision as to who he is in all its senses and to what he will commit himself.

The stylistic complexity of Maps reveals itself in a number of ways. Most obviously, the work employs three differing points of view -- first person, second person, and third person, all focused on Askar himself and each permitting him to be seen and understood from multiple perspectives., much more so than would have been possible in seeing him from a single point of view. (The justification for the multiple perspective is made clear in the closing paragraph of the story, and to my mind at least works.) The multiple viewpoints allow for a variety of interior views of Askar and his meditations on various aspects of the central theme of identity, beginning with questions about the relationship that exists between mother and child both physical and emotional, and opening out into questions of personal identity and later issues of family, "tribe," and national identity, as well. These interior meditations are really the center of the work, with the narrative serving to present occasions for Askar's attempts to understand his place in a complex world of multiple and often shifting identities. Another important element lies in the maps of the title, a subject which fascinates Askar and which come to embody in a number of ways the various concepts of identity.

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Narah's previous trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, I was impressed to see how much Narah had developed as a writer by the time he wrote Maps, which represents a significant growth in his skill. I was impressed even more with Maps than with the previous trilogy, and look forward to reading the remaining two volumes -- Gifts and Secrets -- in the near future.


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