Book: Sardines, by Nuruddin Farah
Where I got it: Borrowed from the local library
Length: 250 pages
Briefly, it’s the second, but independent, book of a trilogy entitled “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship” – though the edition which I read (Heinemann, African Writers Series, 1981) does not mention this. Perhaps the over-arching title was applied retrospectively? The “African Dictatorship” is Somalia (under Siad Barre, though he is never named). “Sardines brilliantly combines a social commentary on life under a dictatorship with a compassionate exploration of African feminist issues”, says the Goodreads site.
Comments: This was not an easy read. The prose is highly metaphorical, in a somewhat self-conscious way. Characters think and speak in paragraphs of metaphor. One of the many literary references in the book is to Flann O’Brien’s “At-Swim-Two-Birds”, and that’s the kind of style that can be found here. Several times I nearly gave up. It was – well, heavy.
I admit that before coming to this book I had almost NO knowledge of Somalia. The name of the country evoked a 1970’s famine-relief-agency poster of a starving child in a poor East African country, that’s all. I didn’t know anything about the Siad Barre regime, or anything else about Somalia either. I do now, but it’s more from reading about this book, trying to get some background information to help me understand what this was all about, than from Sardines itself.
I had a lot of questions about this work, above all, whether the characters and the relationships supposed to be authentic? I didn’t find them so, but maybe they’re not supposed to be. (Is the girl, Ubax, supposed to be a real eight-year-old, or just a literary device? Because sometimes she seems more like a five-year-old, and at others she is portrayed with the understanding of a teenager. Does a young woman who suspects that she is pregnant as a result of a one-night-stand really not cry, or worry, or panic, but simply wax politically philosophical? Why does swimming training seem to play so tiny a role in the life of a national swimming champion?) To appreciate the book, or to evaluate it fairly, I would need to read it again. And I can’t honestly see myself doing that any time soon.
Challenges: Africa Reading Challenge; I Love Library Books challenge.