Magazine article The Spectator

'A Man of Good Hope', by Jonny Steinberg - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'A Man of Good Hope', by Jonny Steinberg - Review

Article excerpt

A Man of Good Hope Jonny Steinberg

Cape, pp.334, £18.99, ISBN: 9780224094122

I would love to sit in on a Jonny Steinberg interview. Over the years this South African writer has perfected a form of reverse ventriloquism, in which he becomes the mouthpiece for the Africans whose lives intrigue him. I'd like to know how he does it.

The process must require relentless badgering, as interview is piled on interview, memory upon memory. One suspects his subjects occasionally come to regret agreeing to cooperate. As a reader, I can only thank them for their patience. For the results are true, relevant, modern narratives conveyed with such eloquence and poignancy they acquire almost Shakespearean gravitas.

In his previous books, Steinberg told the stories of South African mobsters, beleaguered Afrikaner farmers, Aids sufferers and exiled Liberian refugees. The hero of this book is another man on the margins: Asad Abdullahi, a Somali driven from country to country by the continent's turbulent politics and his own need to construct a meaningful life.

By the time Steinberg meets him, in a ghetto regarded as 'Cape Town's asshole, the muscle through which the city shits out the parts it does not want', Asad is so traumatised by violence that their discussions must take place in the author's car, key in the ignition, the two ready at any moment to roar away from township dwellers who have taken to venting their fury on African foreigners in their midst.

How did Asad get there? As an eight-year-old boy in Mogadishu, he saw his mother shot by militiamen from a rival clan. His last glimpse of his father came when he was being bundled into a truck fleeing the city, and a mortar exploded over a column of refugees. Devastating for any child, that sudden separation becomes the faultline on which Asad's life fractures. For Somalis, who grow up memorising generations of male ancestors, genealogy is identity, the relationship with fellow clansmen a nurturing network offering safe harbour and financial support in times of crisis.

Cut adrift, Asad becomes the child no one wants, a scapegoat for resentful wives in hard-pressed Somali households perched on alien territory. 'Something silent and unpleasant passed between them,' Asad remembers of one potential paterfamilias.

Dimly, but palpably enough, Asad understood that in that moment Galal had given up. …

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