One of the better known "failed states" is Somalia, which has been at war with itself since the collapse of its ruinous military regime in 1991. The country gained notoriety during the disastrous attempt by the United States to intervene in the conflict, which was portrayed in the book Black Hawk Down, later adapted into an acclaimed film.

Failed or no, Somalia has produced Nuruddin Farah, whom many regard as the best African novelist writing today, an heir to Chinua Achebe and even V.S. Naipaul. Farah's new novel Links provides an extraordinary glimpse into life in Somalia's capital Mogadiscio, "the city of death."

Links describes the homecoming of the Somali-American Jeebleh, a former political prisoner seeking to settle scores with his jailer, the sadistic half brother of Jeebleh's old friend, Bile. But Jeebleh is distracted by the recent kidnapping of two girls under Bile's care. Despite himself, Jeebleh becomes mired in Mogadiscio's culture of guns and mistrust.

Farah references Dante's Inferno at several points, and the comparisons are apt. In Mogadiscio, AK-47s can be had for six dollars, armed youths shoot children for sport and much of the populace is maimed. Starving cows nibble on shoes, plastic bags, live grenades. Rumor has it that a funeral director is selling the corpses' organs abroad. Yet somehow Jeebleh suspects that for Somalia the worst may be over.

Farah is an unflinching writer of admirable skill—erudite, analytical, with a talent for arresting analogies ("as happy as a yuppie throwing his first housewarming party"). The novel's title refers in part to the country's divisive clan loyalties. But with no functioning banks, no universities and unreliable utilities, it's hard to fault the Somalis for trying to preserve the connections they can.

In any case, anyone wishing to understand this struggle between failed states and those rather more successful would do well to read, and heed, this timely and gripping book.

Kenneth Champeon writes from Thailand.


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