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In Nadifa Mohamed’s first novel, Black Mamba Boy, the main character’s search for his father is central, though not always enough motivation to keep Jama on track. Jama’s called “black mamba boy” because of his mother’s encounter with a deadly snake when she was pregnant. He searches most of his life, initially for the father who left to make his fortune shortly after his son was born and, later, for an understanding of his own life after he just misses being reunited with his father who dies in a tragic accident. It’s a worthy quest, though Mohamed’s novel–because of sparse plotting and little action–often has the feel of non-fiction rather than fiction. That’s regrettable because the narrative is never lacking for interesting settings and memorable description.
The time frame of the novel spans the years between 1935 and 1947, with the settings mostly, but not totally, in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. The author is Somalian as are most of her characters. The scope of Jama’s search and own peregrinations include Aden, Yemen, Somaliland, Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel—plus England, during the years leading up to and including World War II. The Italians and the British were fighting it out in the Horn of Africa, and both father and son work for these colonial powers as war ravages many of the countries listed above.
Mohamed has clearly done her homework; the novel is filled with references to events during the war—ironically culminating in the exodus of Jews from Europe and the formation of Israel.
That focus on Israel’s birth is described in a non-judgmental manner, as if the writer, who is Muslim, ran out of other events that Jama could be part of and tacked on the Jewish exodus and multiple references to the Holocaust without much thought about how they connect to the earlier events in her main character’s saga. The writer lets history propel her narrative rather than character, though Jama himself is interesting enough—simply not memorable as he might have been. He’s about eight years old at the beginning of the story and eighteen or nineteen at the end, after years of wandering through war-torn areas of declining colonialism, yet even the post-colonial aspect of Black Mamba Boy barely casts a shadow on the story itself—perhaps because Jama himself makes a number of bad decisions about his life.
For me, the most powerful scene in the novel is two-thirds into the narrative when Jama (well after his father’s death) opens his father’s cardboard suitcase for the first time in many years. There’s a Sudanese rababa, a toy car covered in rust, plus “the other paltry detritus of his father’s life.” His heart is seared by these objects. Then Mohamed continues, “His loss came sharply back to him, and that night he stayed awake in the dark, pinned to the dirt floor by grief for everyone he had lost. Surrounded by his father’s belongings, Jama began to imagine himself as his father’s sole legacy; everything that once had been his father was now contained in him. It was up to him to live the life his father should have lived, to enjoy the sun and rivers, the fruit and honey that life offered.”
“He picked up the rababa and strummed its five strings, imagining the tunes his father had played to his army friends on their long marches. Jama couldn’t put the rababa down, it sat against his thigh and played him, it sang to him and brought back memories that had lain dormant since infancy, his father’s hair, eyelashes, the glint of his teeth all restored to him in startling detail, and he could feel his father’s stubble tickling his breastmilk-fat stomach and the head rush of being held upside down.”
But the emotion doesn’t hold him in check, prevent him from making other poor decisions or end his continuous wanderings that even take him from a woman who loves him—just as Jama’s own mother was abandoned by her husband. Thus, it’s easy to respond, “Like father, like son,” though I doubt if that is what Nadifa Mohamed wanted us to conclude. Too often I felt that Black Mamba Boy had become a travelogue rather than what might have been a profound understanding of one young man’s encounter with destiny.
Black Mamba Boy
By Nadifa Mohamed
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 285 pp., $25
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.