Nadifa Mohamed’s debut novel Black Mamba Boy tells the story of Jama, a Somali street urchin growing up in the alleys and avenues of Aden, in Yemen, in the ’30s. Left motherless at a young age, Jama embarks on a quixotic quest to find his father, last seen making for Sudan in quest of employment.
Jama’s travels take him through dusty desert villages, into bustling market towns and great cities, and across deserts and lush countryside, all the while exposing him to a wide variety of dangers. The reader can’t help but root for him, hoping that his naiveté serves him well as he navigates these many obstacles.
There’s a built-in momentum to this sort of on-the-road story, a kind of default narrative thrust that arises from Jama’s physical movement from place to place. As he travels from Yemen to Somalia to Eritrea, to Sudan and Palestine and eventually Egypt, the reader is swept away as well, absorbing the sensory impressions of each place in turn. Mohamed does a nice job of differentiating the stops along the route, as in this description of the protagonist’s ancestral village.
“Jama reached Naasa Hablood, the Maiden’s Breasts, the conical twin hills overlooking Hargeisa, and peered below to see the lamps and lights of the town disappearing into the gauzy brown haze of a dust storm. The wind licked and slapped the cowering nomad tents while the white stone houses stood pompously amid the flying rubbish, but eventually the whole town disappeared as if it were just a mirage from an old Arab tale…”
A Cairo carnival conveys just the opposite impression to young Jama, with man-made distractions superceding natural events: “One look and he was gone. Machines dedicated to fun and excitement had never existed in his world, and here was a whole field of delirious mayhem, lightbulbs of red-yellow-blue-green flashed and popped, burnt onions and sugar perfumed the air. Raucous songs and melodies played cacophonously over one another, interrupted by random bangs and pings.”
As skillfully presented as these environments are, though, they are less significant than the people Jama encounters along the way. The Italian fascist experience in Africa has received less literary attention (in English publications, anyway) than, say, the Nazis in Eastern Europe or the British in India, but many of this novel’s most harrowing scenes involve Jama’s encounters with Mussolini’s men in Abyssinia and Eritrea. The Italians are portrayed as cruel, racist thugs, many of whom enjoy randomly inflicting pain on the native population—even those in the employ of the Italian military, the askaris. Indeed, the fate suffered by Jama’s friend Shidane at the hands of a group of Italian soldiers is the strongest episode in the entire book.
It’s an oft-overlooked detail of the World War II era that the Italians under Il Duce were trying their hardest to match Germany, Britain and France as expansionist imperial powers, with all the attendant viciousness that such a campaign entailed. One (perhaps unintentional) effect of the presentation of the Italians in Mohamed’s book is that the British come off as rather kinder and more sympathetic in comparison. Perhaps this was indeed the case. On the other hand, Britain has engaged in atrocities too numerous of its own to count—as a glance at Ireland’s history will attest, or India’s, or Burma’s, or South Africa’s. Given all this, the book’s rose-colored tint regarding Britons overseas is a little tough to swallow.
In any case, Jama’s involvement with the Italian version of European colonialism is unlikely to be forgotten by readers anytime soon. Sadly, the same can’t be said for what is in many ways the most crucial element in the book: Jama himself. His character is in fact eminently forgettable—strangely enough, this character-centric novel holds the central character at an odd remove, rarely allowing the reader to get inside his skin and inhabit his experience. There is little sense of urgency about his plight, and little sense that things won’t work out for the best in the end. Maybe this is because—as we’re informed by the Publishers Weekly blurb on the back cover—author Mohamed was inspired in the telling of this story by her father’s own wanderings as a child. Maybe there is another reason. In any case, Jama is handled with a bit too much caution, and we rarely glimpse the frightened boy behind the icon.
This isn’t to say that everything here is bad—there’s some vivid writing contained in these pages, and as mentioned, Jama’s sojourn carries with it a kind of automatic propulsive force. But there’s little to evoke a strong emotional tug for the reader, as Jama’s mood seems remarkably calm throughout his travels (with two or three significant exceptions). Besides, there are plentiful kindhearted strangers to lend a hand along the way. This, no doubt, is a boon to Jama on his wanderings, but it does make for a certain lackluster drama.