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Knots A Novel Nuruddin Farah Riverhead Books: 422 pp., $25.95

February 25, 2007|Donna Seaman | Donna Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist, editor of the anthology "In Our Nature: Stories of Wildness" and host of the radio program "Open Books" in Chicago. Seaman's author interviews are collected in "Writers on the Air."

THROWING caution to the wind, Cambara, 6 feet tall and headstrong, walks the blasted and treacherous streets of Mogadiscio alone in Nuruddin Farah's novel "Knots." Not that she hasn't taken precautions. She carries a knife beneath her properly modest yet cleverly battle-ready head-to-toe body covering, "a baggy, custom-made all-gray veil with the sides zipped up for quick, easy removal in the event of a need to karate-kick an aggressor."

Cambara has studied martial arts in secret, and, as the reader learns in one of this arabesque novel's many dramatic flashbacks, she very nearly beat her miscreant husband to death after their 9-year-old son died on his watch. This tragedy occurred not in blood-soaked Somalia, where Cambara was born, but in secure Toronto, where she grew up after her progressive parents fled the chaos and violence of their homeland. Cambara has now returned to Mogadiscio (the Italian spelling of Mogadishu, a reminder of Italy's rule over the region during the first half of the 20th century), a city "rampant with the ghosts of its innocent dead," because she is on a mission. As is Farah.

Like many of his protagonists, Farah has experienced both exile and return. Born in Somalia in 1945 and educated in philosophy, literature and theater in India and Britain, Farah introduced the core theme of his humanistic fiction in his very first novel, "From a Crooked Rib" (1970): his empathy and advocacy for women struggling against brutal and systematic sexism. His second novel, "A Naked Needle," was deemed treasonable by the Somalian government in 1976 while Farah was in Rome, and he was advised not to return home.

Farah didn't set foot in Somalia again for 20 years, yet he has never stopped writing about his country as it has been plagued by dictatorship, clan warfare, poverty, drought, famine, catastrophic chaos and violent misrule by rival warlords. Multilingual, Farah chooses to write in English and is somehow compelled to create trilogies. The first was "Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship," consisting of "Sweet and Sour Milk" (1979), "Sardines" (1981) and "Close Sesame" (1985). The novels "Maps" (1986), "Gifts" (1992) and "Secrets" (1998) comprise the "Blood in the Sun" trilogy, in the wake of which Farah received the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature. So visionary are his novels that his name is often cited as Nobel-worthy.

"Knots" stands on its own even though it is the second in another trilogy-in-progress, following "Links" (2004). The direct connection between the two novels isn't revealed until well into the story, although there are immediately discernible parallels. Like Cambara, Jeebleh, the hero of "Links," returns to Somalia after a long absence and a death in the family. There he finds himself in the thick of civil-war hell. Things are a bit calmer when Cambara arrives. Islamists, particularly the Islamic Court Union, are imposing rigid laws, while warlords fight, yet the bloodshed has dragged on for so long that resistance to anarchy is growing, thanks, mostly, to women's groups.

The purpose of Cambara's visit only gradually becomes clear as she tries to get her bearings in the city she barely recognizes in its war-torn state. Because the story is told strictly from her point of view and there is much she doesn't know, the reader must piece things together. Then there's the challenge of keeping pace with Cambara's volatile psychic weather. Assailed by terrible grief over her son and fury at her unfaithful and fatally careless husband, Cambara swerves from painful memories to intense strategizing to paranoia to disorienting visions and vivid dreams. Each chapter delivers fresh revelations about her life and temperament, adding to the mystique of this audacious and irresistible heroine.

Observant, intuitive, stern and beautiful, Cambara is a makeup artist, actor, sometime journalist and aspiring playwright. Industrious and mettlesome, she hopes to teach by example "her triad of society: work, honest living, and peace." A take-charge gal, she knows how to use traditional women's skills -- cleaning, cooking, caring for children and tending to the sick -- as conduits to power, a stealthy approach that serves her well as she schemes to reclaim property owned by her family and commandeered by a warlord. But regaining possession is only one facet of her grand plan "to come to Mogadiscio and help make the world that she finds a better place, in memory of her son, whose life has been cut short."

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