Although most Americans couldn't find Somalia on a map, they all share one clear mental image of the African country: the mutilated body of an Army Ranger being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The United States had arrived in late 1992 on a humanitarian mission called Restore Hope. Sixteen months later, after bitter humiliation and a new lesson on the complications of intervention, it retreated.
Mark Bowden placed the infamous helicopter battle in Mogadishu at the center of his bestselling book, "Black Hawk Down," a finalist for the National Book Award in 1999. A popular Hollywood version followed two years later.
Now comes a very different treatment of that conflict from Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah. Whereas Bowden's journalistic approach tried to untangle the complexities of Mogadishu, Farah's new novel, "Links," aims to convey a sense of the city's impenetrable ambiguity. And while the movie, with its Oscar-winning soundtrack, brought viewers smack into the grit of battle, Farah raises us into a haze of muffled alliances and conflicted values. That approach involves considerable risks, particularly for Americans, who may want their books, like their military interventions, well defined with clear exit strategies, but Farah plays to an international audience.
"Links" concerns a Somali named Jeebleh who's come back after 20 years of exile in the United States. Mogadishu holds few pleasant memories for him; he spent his last years there in prison. He watched the American intervention on TV from the comfort of his home in New York City, and later he received word of his mother's death through the mail. He might not have ever gone back, but when a Somali taxi driver in New York almost ran him over, the irony of that close call inspired him to visit his war-torn country, "a land where demons never took a break."
He arrives full of apprehension, "certain that at a conscious level he was not sufficiently prepared for the shocks in store for him." On cue, while he's collecting his bags, a group of armed youths drive by, place bets, and shoot into the new arrivals, killing a 10-year-old boy.
But what interests Farah in this novel is not so much the horror of these random acts of violence, which form the background radiation of life in Mogadishu, but the psychological effects of living in chaos. "Distrust was the order of the day," Farah writes, "and everyone was suspicious of everybody else." For people trapped in such a place, the result is a permanently unsettled sense of apprehension, worse even, Farah suggests, than the rule of a cruel dictator.
Jeebleh seeks out his old friend, Dr. Bile, a pacifist who runs The Refuge, a haven in a city torn between warring clans. Bile's niece, a young woman with a mystic aura of peace and "a face as ancient as the roots of a baobab," has recently disappeared, and Bile suspects his evil stepbrother may have kidnapped her. Jeebleh decides to find the girl himself, but he quickly discovers that, like everything in this country, her disappearance is not what it seems.
Communal and familial interests in Mogadishu have been scrambled in ways that make it impossible to separate what's political from what's personal. Chaos in the streets, Jeebleh learns, reflects disorder in the home, which reverberates back into society with even more deadly effect. Not coincidentally, the Somali term for "civil war" translates roughly into "killing an intimate." For Jeebleh, still the pensive academic, this inspires a long consideration of the divisive or inclusive function of pronouns, the "we" or "them" that either reinforces clan unity or demonizes others.
As Jeebleh searches for his friend's niece, risking his life to pursue mysterious figures and venture down unknown paths, Farah turns the narrative into a kind of nightmare with that alternating feeling of familiarity and dislocation, compromised volition, and a frustrating sense that crucial information is just out of reach. Indeed, to enter this novel, we must become something like Jeebleh, repress our need for explanations, and resign ourselves to a murky cloud of suggestions and fears, a land simultaneously distinct and amorphous.
This is the slightly abstract, slightly surreal territory where several Nobel laureates hang out, writers like Singer, Márquez, and Saramago, and it's no coincidence that Farah has been held up in their company. He won the Neustadt International Prize in 1998, and his command of five languages and a lifetime spent in Africa, the United States, Europe, and India give his work a legendary quality even when the story concerns such a specific place and time.
Partly that effect stems from his penchant for African folklore, proverbs, and striking figures of speech. For instance, Jeebleh sees "the stars a-scatter like maize kernels thrown into greedy disarray by two hens quarreling." When he's worried, "his innards stir with the adrenaline of a daddy longlegs crawling out of a ditch a meter deep." And after Bile tells the dark story of his family's troubles, "his features take on the darker hue of fabric soaking overnight in water."
Like these strange and strangely self-evident descriptions, this whole story is both alien and familiar, a haunting exploration of the desire to help and the attendant costs of doing so.
The impulse to intervene, Farah suggests, is not evil or foolish or even exclusively American. But when Jeebleh rises with righteous determination to enter this fray, he learns that bitter American lesson about trying to "be good in a conscientious way in a city in which people are wicked and murderous through and through." As Emily Dickinson wryly observed, "Success in Circuit lies." To battle this vague enemy, Jeebleh finally realizes he must fight with the same side glances, altering his principles and permanently compromising his nature in ways he couldn't have anticipated. "No one," Bile tells him, "living in a country in which a civil war is raging is deemed to be innocent."
Near the end of his journey, Jeebleh thinks that his story is too woven into the "Dantean complexity" of others' stories to serve any "moral and political edification," but he's wrong.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.