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New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Start of the Affair" by Nuruddin Farah

Issue: Dec. 22 & 29, 2015

Story: "The Start of the Affair"

Author: Nuruddin Farah

Rating: $/Meh

Review: I love a good piece of "world" fiction, i.e. fiction set outside the Anglophone world and/or by or about non-native English speakers. Why would I not classify a story about Australian or British middle-class white people as "world" fiction? Because I feel the context is too similar to mine and, even if not necessarily similar, too easily translated into something from my own experience. A story like "The Start of the Affair," on the other hand, takes place in a country and culture utterly foreign to me, even if, in the story, the characters speak English in order to relate to each other.

"The Start of the Affair" is, as the name might suggest, a love story, but an unusual and slightly imperialist-seeming one. James, the owner of a restaurant in South Africa, falls in love with a poor Somali immigrant named Ahmed who comes to his restaurant each day to collect scraps of food. A former professor, James is cultured, well-off, stable, and nearly three times Ahmed's age. Although Ahmed is from a powerful family in Somalia, in South Africa he's a young man on the fringe; the keeper of a small shop on the floor of which he sleeps at night because he has no other home. James goes into the shop one day and initiates a slow, respectful, and persistent courtship of Ahmed, trying to make the younger man's life easier and more comfortable while he's ultimately trying to sleep with him.

It feels a little unfair to criticize a Somali-born writer on his use of the English language. Becoming a renowned writer in one's own native language is enough of an achievement, let alone becoming a renowned writer in a learned language. However, something about Farah's style makes the characters and the whole timbre of "The Start of the Affair" seem a bit flat, almost as if this were meant to be a factual, third-person report of events and not a narration. Maybe that was intended, maybe it wasn't. But the effect is that the characters seem a bit like ciphers rather than real, living, human beings. We do get sprinkling's of James' inner thoughts -- pining after Ahmed, interpreting from Ahmed's simple English what he thinks are deeper motivations and feelings -- as the story is slightly canted toward James' point of view. But even James seems more like a vehicle for the seduction of Ahmed than an actual human being.

Ahmed, on the other hand, seems to have no personality of his own at all, other than as a deferential and yielding (even if it's a slow yielding) object of James' affection. Is Ahmed gay or is he just lost and desperate in a foreign land in which he's found himself a poor third-class citizen? Does he accept James' advances because he likes the older man and wants his affection, or because he has no other options and feels that James can provide him safety and security? It's hard to say. Maybe it's some combination of the two and maybe we, as the reader, must form our own conclusions from the actions of the characters rather than being spoon-fed their thoughts. After all, were Ahmed using James for money, he would have acted a lot differently, perhaps speeding up the pace of the affair in order to get whatever he deemed was his "payout."

The point is, Farah's distanced, minimalist, fact-oriented writing style -- closer to that of a news
reporter in many ways than a fiction writer -- creates the odd but not altogether undesirable effect of putting this story's entire meaning and significance up for grabs. Is this a story about a paternalistic white man who uses his wealth and status -- in a white man's land -- to seduce a poor defenseless member of the down-trodden immigrant class? Or is this a genuine love affair among two kindred souls in a land where words like "straight" and "gay" have less weight? Will James drop Ahmed after he's gotten what he wants? Or will Ahmed do the same? We get subtle hints at these answers throughout "The Start of the Affair" but no really conclusive information either way. It does seem certain, however, that this is a temporary relationship based on convenience and circumstance; indeed, it is an affair.

The redeeming qualities of "The Start of the Affair" lie, if you will permit to use a seemingly trite and meaningless phrase, in the spaces between the words. What I mean is, Farah has laid out the skeleton of a story, the broad sketches, showing us only the merest glimpses into the characters' emotional lives. It's as if we, the reader, are being challenged to form our own connections and apply our own experience to fill in the gaps. Perhaps that's a conscious technique; perhaps it's just Farah's style. Either way, I find it hard to give "The Start of the Affair" a positive or negative charge. The story has a certain careful, well-constructed architecture to it and Farah easily carried me through to the end; however, I think he remains too far distanced from his characters, so much so that it feels like he might not even know who they are. As a result, my ultimate impression is that the story feels a little one dimensional.


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