Exiled writers like Nuruddin Farah, a Somali currently living in Cape Town, have perhaps more reason than most to write about questing travel. Mr. Farah's own quest has been "to keep my country alive by writing about it." Overstated as that may sound, it is modest compared to what James Joyce said, upon his own self-imposed exile, about forging his race's uncreated conscience.
In recent years, Mr. Farah has been able to visit Mogadishu, for research purposes, and the trilogy that began in 2004 with "Links" has seen Somali refugees returning to their home. This is travel with a strong feeling of purpose, though any purpose is shaded by inadvisability, given the dangers of Somalia's current political climate.
In his new novel, "Knots" (Graywolf Press, 263 pages, $14), Mr. Farah has gratified his rich interest in women's rights: Cambara, a casual student of karate, has recently beaten her no-good husband to a pulp, in self-defense. After returning to Mogadishu from Toronto, fuzzed by jet lag and frustrated by her insolent cousin, Cambara remembers her own violence with relish. But how can she square that rush with her resolution "to mourn, in peace, while living in a city ravaged by war?"
Mr. Farah gives Cambara more to do than mourn. Her quest turns out to be heroic: She will reclaim her family's lost compound from the minor warlord who uses it, and, like Susan Sontag in Sarajevo, she will use the compound to create a theater, Mogadishu's only dramatic space since the National Theater was overrun by warlords. Violence, or the feeling of violence, will indeed aid her: Throughout the novel, when faced with the city's armed teenage thugs, she will find assurance in the grip of the knife that she keeps tucked in her caftan.
All the newsworthy tricks of urban Mogadishu life confront Cambara: the begrudged necessity of veils, the terror of child soldiers, and the temptation to mother them. But after satisfying our obvious curiosities, Mr. Farah makes a deeper point about life during war. He emphasizes interiority and suggests that a confrontation with Mogadishu is a question of selfpossession.
In one scene, Cambara's cab is held up by a teenage checkpoint at a hotel. Afraid of what they might do, Cambara decides simply to get out of the car. "She resolves to bring it all to a head—and suddenly." Stamping the dust off her shoes, she lets her six-foot frame distract the boy soldiers. Then she makes a calculated presumption:
‘Since you won't let my taxi in,' she says, ‘please let the driver bring out of the truck of his taxi my oddment of purchases. You may inspect them. In fact, I would be grateful if one of you will give him a hand to bring them in, given that there are no page boys about.'
The drama of "Knots," in fact, depends upon Cambara's ability to size up and control her own instincts and intimations. She worries, for example, that visiting her cousin "will start her on an illstarred legion of contagions that will set her back immeasurably and lead eventually to disaster." Lucky for Cambara, a network of women and their male allies make her dreams possible, and as long as she keeps her own expectations carefully in hand, she realizes them.
Readers interested in Mr. Farah will do well to look at his earlier work. Graywolf Press reissued Mr. Farah's trilogy "Variations on the Theme on an African Dictatorship" last year. The first volume, published in 1970, "Sweet and Sour Milk" (Graywolf Press, 263 pages, $14), presented us with a writer who was taking his time. In "Knots," Mr. Farah's English prose, perhaps rushed by the pace of events in Somalia, reveals the exaggerated idiomatic grasp of a second language: butterflies, for example, "take residence in [Cambara's] viscera."
"Sweet and Sour Milk" turns the same awkwardness into something stately, a kind of language on stilts: "The sun held court with the clouds which encircled it." A political and metaphysical mystery story, less relevant now than "Knots," it nonetheless explains much of the momentum Mr. Farah has gathered in recent years. In this early book, the warmth of the Somali beach becomes palpable and political violence becomes relatively stranger, more so than it does through the jet-lag of "Knots."