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  • Eddie Hewitt

The Fortune Men

by Nadifa Mohamed. Review.

I try to curb my expectations when it comes to new novels by favourite authors, but for The Fortune Men I simply could not contain myself. For starters, I dared to hope it would continue a well-loved story, picking up from where Black Mamba Boy left off. I also expected a brand new exploration, a re-telling of a different story, this time based on events in a slightly more familiar but equally captivating setting. With interweaving threads forming an inescapable combination of pain and joy. I’m excited to say… The Fortune Men delivers everything I wished for and more. This is a brilliant and harrowing tale.

The life story of Mahmoud Hussein Mattan runs parallel, up to a point, to the author’s father’s in her first novel. Both men came to the UK in 1947. Both were in the Merchant Navy. Both were seeking their fortunes far from home. Their stories draw deeply on Somali heritage, culture and identity. Ever present in Nadifa’s novels is her ability to encapsulate the beauty of language and history and difference, evoking a distinctive time and place in an absorbing realm that cries out to be explored.

The Fortune Men is, again, somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, but this new novel goes beyond in terms of genre. This is a very public story, a true crime, yet one where the hero is the chief victim as well as the suspect in a localised, colonially fuelled war against outsiders of a particular type. A re-writing of history, probing the events and the characters that were misrepresented for far too long, now establishing the truth.

This book goes so far beyond a murder mystery story. The author slips in the murder chapter almost unnoticed. And for several more chapters Mahmoud doesn’t think he will even be implicated, let alone found guilty when things get serious. He believes in fairness and trusts the British judicial system. The establishment believes in something else. The police are determined to make wrong decisions.

The story is set in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, almost 70 years ago in 1952, the year Queen Elizabeth II took to the throne. We are transported, then, to a location where many might have feared to tread, and to a decade when things happened differently, or so we might like to think.

With this setting, Nadifa opens up a world that is genuinely alien to me, sharing her research and her discoveries, as well as her family history, imagination and craft. Her hero is a former Somali sailor. A son, brother, husband and father. But first, we hear Diana and Violet’s story. We learn of their sisterly love. Their Jewishness. Their status as immigrants – a very different status to Mahmoud’s. The war reflections link to our current (and seemingly never ending) fascination with Hitler, Churchill and the War, and the long-standing xenophobia of the Daily Mail.

Mahmoud Hussein Mattan is mysterious and feared. He likes to keep his business to himself, but his story must come out. He speaks Somali, Arabic, English, Swahili and a little Hindi. He is a religious man. Not a good Muslim, perhaps, but he prays in prison, recites the Qur’an and clings on to the sanctity of life.

We learn much more about him as a Fortune Man, and his travels on the SS Emmeline.

A happier time in his life, but only in some ways, before settling in Tiger Bay. The author tells us about life as a sailor beautifully with my favourite line in the book:

“Ablutions were performed there in an old water tank with goldfish flashing through the bright green water and turtles bobbing intermittently up to the surface.”

And then we are treated to a series of magical wordlists, conjuring up an exotic market and lucky customers

“chomping through mangoes, papayas, stringy tamarinds and dry sugar cane”,

then wandering through masses of

“fake gold, squawking chickens, embellished rugs, toupees and henna, Hindu gods and technicolour paintings of Jesus and Mary, oily perfumes and incense sticks, defanged cobras and bleating white kind goats.”

A glorious mélange of cultures, religions, comestibles and creative arts. This is so typical of Nadifa’s style. She crams her sentences full with beautifully gathered items. Collections of choice specimens. Lists of sensory experiences. Only rarely do I think that’s enough, and even then I quickly and happily realise I don’t want the list to stop.

Nadifa Mohamed at the Tate Gallery (photo via the authors' Twitter feed)

The story also gives us a valuable political insight into pre and post war Somaliland. I learn that Britain ‘abandoned the protectorate’ in 1941, allowing the Italians to move in. A painful period to reflect on, but Nadifa delightfully finds time here for a brief diversion and the funniest line in the book. This involves Mahmoud’s family shop, spaghetti, macaroni and the goats of Hargeisa. Find this line, I urge you. And then, back to the history and yet more trauma: the British took over the colony again six months later.

So, was Mahmoud feeling lucky? Success came easily in his first twenty years, but Africa began to feel too small for him, and he had to travel. Migrating from Somaliland to the UK brings mixed fortunes. In the physically much smaller Cardiff, Mahmoud seeks his fortune via stealing, wheeler dealing and lies. Ultimately, his luck runs out completely.

The trial brings a quickening of pace in the novel. The court case rattles along and the verdict is reached swiftly. Which is all so vexing (for readers and for Mahmoud), since there is no real case to answer, no incriminatory evidence. The outcome is both a shock and not a shock. I was hopeful all along. Like Mahmoud, I had too much bloody hope. Deep down, I suspected that injustice would prevail.

At the book launch, Razia Iqbal observed that we read the story now through a lens of historic, institutional racism. Nadifa reflected that things really haven’t changed that much in the language used towards black people and the way they are treated differently. This is inevitably “a result of Britain’s unresolved colonial history”.

Mahmoud knows he is called a pollywog. In court, his own counsel suggests he is

Half child of nature, half semi-civilized savage”.

Mahmoud is forced to accept he is a stranger in a strange land, convinced that he is being demonised because he is black.

In prison, Mahmoud is shocked to learn from a fellow inmate that the cremated bodies of executed prisoners lie under the vegetable patch, enriching the compost for the spuds and greens. This makes me think of Kawsar and the trees and the sad remnants in the ground beneath them in The Orchard of Lost Souls.

Mahmoud is far from his homeland. He is put into a place and a context he hates, cut off from all he knows and loves. Finally, there is nothing left to hope for, and he is distraught that the “the world will end in a tiny way without him”.

The story has always been meant to be on the silver screen. Here, Amir Mohamed joins Nadifa Mohamed on set for the trailer (photo via the author's Twitter feed)

In the end, I keep coming back to the concept of fortune. This book is a tribute to one specific man. But the story, the experience of this man is more widely about class and race and nationalism. Good luck for some. Bad luck for others. All determined by those who abuse power and mistreat others for being different and vulnerable.

This is a disturbing indictment of society, wrapped up in a heart-rending narrative, with warmth and a sense of tribute to lost loved ones. We are taken along a journey of harsh realities. An arrival. A displacement. A tale of lies and injustice, heaping even more shame on a Britain that prides itself on fairness and its beloved spirit of cricket. The history is damning, but even now, especially now, we still need to do better. To be better. To move forward in an honest, equal and shared society.

© Eddie Hewitt 2021

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