Thursday, 30 September 2021

The Fortune Men

Your brothers send their greetings and wish me to tell you that they have put in a bid to win the first cinema concession in Hargeisa. I do not know if it will be granted to them, or to one of those cut-throats on the other side of the ditch, but if you have anything to contribute, manshallah, otherwise I will tell them it is impossible. Some of these sailors return with such good fortune, son, and I hope that one day it will be you stepping out of a car with your suitcases and children and happy wife.


The Fortune Men is based on a true story: In 1952, a Somali transplant to Cardiff — married to a local white woman and father to her three sons — was wrongfully charged with murdering a shopkeeper. Known to area police as a shiftless gambler and a thief, this one-time merchant seaman, Mahmood Mattan, was an easy target for the cops in this rowdy port town to frame; and with an all-white jury and witness testimony swayed by significant reward money, it’s easy to make the connection between systemic racism and the little value given to this Black man’s life. Author Nadifa Mohamed, herself a transplant from Somalia who grew up in Britain (and whose father apparently knew Mahmood Mattan), stuffs this novel with period detail in an effort to bring this historical footnote to life, but I found it all a little clunky; there’s too much detail about too many peripheral characters and I never found myself quite connecting with Mattan. I am glad to have learned the history but this wasn’t a terribly successful novel for me (but as it has been shortlisted for the 2021 Man Booker Prize, who am I to judge?) Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.

Adjusting his homburg hat — the hat his mother-in-law says reminds her of funerals — low over his eyebrows, Mahmood realizes that there are too many people he doesn’t want to see on the street: the Nigerian watchmaker chasing after a watch he’d snuck out of his pocket, the lanky Jewish pawnbroker who had taken in his bedclothes when he’d had nothing else to pawn, that Russian woman from one of the caf├ęs who he both wants to see and dreads seeing. He takes a deep breath and steps out.

From the beginning, we’re not really meant to like Mahmood: we learn immediately that he’s delinquent in support payments to the wife who has kicked him out, he’s a thief, a gambler, a layabout, a womaniser. But even so, when the police finger him for a murder — based mostly on vague reports of a Somali being seen in the area that night — the reader does hope that the wheels of justice will eventually turn in Mahmood’s favour. The story carries Mahmood from boarding house to police station, jail, and then to trial — and for the most part, this is interesting. But along the way, Mohamed distracts the reader from Mahmood’s fate by inserting too many of the “colourful” facts she must have learned in her research of the times: Mahmood meets a Jamaican pimp in prison who talks about being picked up by upperclass white couples who wanted him to have sex with the wife while the husband watched; he talks with his Somali friend “Berlin” and learns that he got that nickname after being tricked by some Germans into becoming a specimen in a type of travelling anthropological zoo; Mahmood remembers the bacchanalian ritual at sea that saw someone dressed as King Neptune initiating the “Pollywogs” upon crossing the equator; there are many scenes from Mahmood’s childhood in Somalia and we learn the history of control of that country switching back and forth between the British and the Italians; we even spend quite a lot of time from the perspective of the (soon to be murdered) Jewish shopkeeper and her family, telling of how the deceased’s sister joined the WAAF after Kristallnacht and her experiences manning barrage balloons. All interesting enough, I suppose, but these details didn’t add much to Mahmood’s story for me.

His life was, is, one long film with mobs of extras and exotic, expensive sets. Long reams of film and miles of dialogue extending back as he struts from one scene to another. He can imagine how his movie looks even now: the camera zooming in from above on to the cobblestone prison yard and then merging into a close-up of his thoughtful, upturned face, smoke billowing out from the corner of his dark lips. A colour film, it must be that. It has everything: comedy, music, dance, travel, murder, the wrong man caught, a crooked trial, a race against time and then the happy ending, the wife swept up in the hero’s arms as he walks out, one sun-filled day, to freedom. The image stretches Mahmood’s mouth into a smile.

I didn’t know how Mahmood’s story ended before I read this book, so this did have some narrative tension for me; I just got a bit impatient with the extraneous bits. This may have worked better for me as nonfiction.

2021 Man Booker Prize Nominees

The Shortlist (In my order of preference):

A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam

The Promise, Damon Galgut * The Winner

No One is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood

The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed

Bewilderment, Richard Powers

Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead


And the rest:

Second Place, Rachel Cusk

China Room, Sunjeev Sahota

An Island, Karen Jennings

The Sweetness of Water, Nathan Harris

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro

A Town Called Solace, Mary Lawson

Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford

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