Review: Writing Elevates Known History | Book reviews and short stories

CLAUDE PECK Star Tribune

“The Fortune Men” by Nadifa Mohamed, Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $27.

Mahmood Mattan was saved. Renewed, he emerges from the pages of “The Fortune Men” as a true literary hero-victim with all the complexity that such a status tends to require.

It’s a miraculous feat by British-Somali writer Nadifa Mohamed, 70 years after Mahmood, falsely accused of murdering a woman in her Cardiff shop, was hanged in a Welsh prison.

Mahmood died in 1952. His family and friends sought for decades to clear his name. Finally, in 1998, a panel of British judges overturned Mahmood’s conviction.

With the basic facts of the case and its outcome widely known, what is left for a novelist? How will she maintain the suspense?

Mohamed overcomes these doubts with the feast of his prose. She brings magic to her project, achieving in fiction what no historical narrative could match.

Mahmood grew up a Muslim amid famine, drought, clan warfare and colonial occupation in Somalia. His pious mother did not hesitate to treat her boy with words from the Quran washed on a blackboard and mixed in a drinking potion. As a teenager, he began a wandering life as a laborer in Africa before sailing around the world as a sailor on merchant ships. Although he spoke five languages, he could barely read and write.

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He was never afraid to take risks or face the unknown: “I’m a gamer at heart. Even as a little boy, if someone says to me, “Oh, I know you won’t do that or you can’t do that,” I look into my eyes and do it. I take everything life gives me and throw it in the face of fate.

Mahmood’s unfortunate story picks up in Tiger Bay, a port town where he hopes to reunite with his ex-wife and their three young sons. It’s a bustling, blown, polluted, WWII-scarred place, the kind of town where “you can have chop suey for lunch and Yemeni saltah for dinner.” The city is multiracial but also very racist, with black people from the West Indies and Africa working as laborers and living in slums.

More prosperous but also emigrants are the Volacki sisters, whose Jewish father came from Russia 50 years earlier and became a successful merchant. In the 1950s, Violet Volacki ran the family store. One night, answering the door after hours, she is killed, allegedly by a black man. Without much evidence or witnesses, Mahmood soon becomes the prime suspect in the murder.

“The Fortune Men” revels in the sultry details of its life and death story, from the star-studded Somali desert of Mahmood’s youth to the smell of cooked food wafting through the air in Tiger Bay.

A celebration of Eid, the parade and end of Ramadan party, is enjoyed by all:

“Matrons in aprons, gamblers in flat caps, ramshackle ramis, yelping dogs, fresh-faced bar girls, and teenage delinquents in leather jackets watch from the sidewalk and wave through the windows. A few weary Union Jacks, remnants of the celebrations From VE-Day, Dizzy children revel in what they call Muslim Christmas.

The unbridled delight of such scenes gives rise to the existential dread that chills Mahmood’s thoughtful soul when he realizes that his innocence will not protect him from the executioner’s noose.

The trial is a joke. Mahmood’s own lawyer may also have worked for the prosecution, and a guilty verdict and death sentence are quickly announced.

Credible, flawed, labile, proud, defiant, fatalistic and vengeful, Mahmood captures all our sympathy, and his final days are filled with insight and pathos.

In a reversal of the Western perspective, Mohamed shows us Britain through the eyes of this foreigner, the black African, the Muslim. It is a revealing and unforgettable angle of vision.

Claude Peck is a former editor of the Star Tribune and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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