“All Of Us Fighting Over Crumbs”: Nadifa Mohamed “The Fortune Men”

The English novel (as distinct from the novel-in-English, which has thanks to American literature in particular long been better served in this regard) has only a relatively recent tradition of the social novel that focuses on race. Notable exceptions such as Eliot’s Daniel Deronda aside, it is only really in the twenty-first century that the novels of England have considered the experiences of people not of the imagined “ethnic majority”: from Hanif Kureishi to Zadie Smith, a generation of writers who came of age at either end of the 1990s heralded a movement which has created much of the best literature in England of the past twenty years. Sunjeev Sahota, Taiye Selsasi, Mohsin Hamid and Diana Evans have all in recent years produced memorable and successful novels which have focused on elements of English society which were entirely invisible in much of the work most prominent even as recently as the 1980s (in, for example, the work of Amis, Barnes, Byatt, Drabble et al).

This has immeasurably enriched English literature, and it is notable that these are the writers which have managed for the most part to keep authors of the British Isles in the Booker shortlist now that the panel is able to select novels from across the English-speaking world, rather than from the rather hokey notionality of the “Commonwealth”. Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men is an extremely good example of the form. Somali-born, and resident in Britain since the age of four, Mohamed’s capturing of the 1950s Wales in which the novel is set is pitch-perfect, as evocative a work of historical fiction as Sarah Waters might ever manage; but her depiction of the Somali community in Cardiff at that time is also fierce and full, notable for its controlled but unmistakable elucidation of the impossible injustices that were contained within a Tiger Bay replete with cultural diversity even as the authorities sought to maintain a ruthlessly genteel majoritarianism.

The novel’s central figure is Mahmood Mattan, a former sailor who has, in order to stay near his estranged Welsh wife and their children, adopted a more stationary life at the edges of the maritime economy: a fixer, odd-job man, gambler and even would-be rake, he adopts – even when he cannot afford – the trappings of dandyism in an attempt to break out of the subordinate role it is demanded he assume, even as his activity is essential to maintaining the luxury of his betters. In this, he is no different to anyone else in the polyglot community of Tiger Bay, where “everyone [is] bending the law a little to make life easier”: after all, the law was not made for them. Still, Mohamed doesn’t make him relatable or likeable per se – his view of women is not entirely enlightened (he tells his mother-in-law that he will “kill [his wife] dead if he saw her with another man” [p. 77]); his obstreperous arrogance can be frustrating; he makes some poor choices. But Mohamed also encourages and achieves an intense empathy for Mattan’s positionality, the relationship with authority and wider society that is is not chosen by but forced upon him.

Mattan’s reckoning with his situation is complex. Early on, he visits the Employment Exchange in an attempt to obtain some regular – and respectable – work. Given his experience as a boilerman on sea-going vessels, he is an ideal heavy industry man. But there is a problem. “There is one foundry job here,” the woman behind Counter 4 tells him “but I don’t think you will be suitable.” She leaves “the rest unsaid”, and Mattan “meets her gaze, swallows a bitter smile” (p. 23). Proper work – factory work – is for white men, of course. Mahmood knows, too, what those white men think of him: “‘The blacks take our jobs and take our women.’ They talk like that in all the papers, and say it to your face if they’re feeling bold” (p. 231). This knowledge he learned on leaving Somalia, on the various vessels on which he found work: “the ship revealed to him the gulf between the life he had been living in Africa and the world beyond” (pp. 232).

On the other hand, Mattan labours under the belief – the hope, the delusion? – that he can join this other world, become part of the world of privilege that exists in another sphere to the land of his birth. With his clothes and his Welsh wife, he believes himself to be achieving a toe-hold in this new world – but he soon comes to understand that in fact such entrance is denied to him, that so-called tolerance is always conditional. “Isn’t this what the world is like?” he reflects late in the novel while looking at a chequers board. “With countries and seas instead of black and white squares, the white man spread all over, the black man picked off wherever he might be and left to eke out a life on the fringes if the board” (p. 321). Mattan ruminates in a cell on death row, awaiting his execution for a crime he did not commit – but one for which he has been convicted by, of course, an all-white jury.

All this is based on a true story. Only one name has been changed – that of the murder victim, the Jewish shopkeeper Lily Volpert, here referred to as Violet Volacki. This understandable delicateness somewhat informs those of the novel’s passages – common in its first half, rarer as it proceeds – that focus first on Violet and then on her sister, Diana, and and niece, Grace. These sections are sometimes overly polite, somehow less incisive or as deeply characterised as those which revolve around Mattan; Violet is defined by work, Diana by grief. Compare this with the layered depiction even of the secondary characters in Mattan’s chapters – Laura, who is “using black men knives to hurt herself with” (p. 76), or Mattan’s benefactor, Berlin, who from his seafront bar “struggles to keep old worlds alive; friends, lovers, even children seem to deliquesce when he turns his back” (p. 39); it is little wonder that the Volecki sections reduce in number until they cease to insert themselves into Mattan’s narrative.

This may or may not be a missed opportunity, but it certainly makes the novel a little bumpy in its structure. So, too, does the switch to scripted dialogue when the narrative moves to the trial of Mattan for Volacki’s murder, on the basis of mere circumstantial evidence and – of course – racist suspicion. The sudden shift from prose to transcript feels unnecessary, and works against the novel’s otherwise ever-present imaginative sympathy. This is a pity, since an exploration of why the diversity of Tiger bay does not help Mattan would have immeasurably deepened this section of the novel: “They have a West Indian, a Welshman, an Arab, a Maltese, an Indian, a Jew, almost the League of Nations accusing him” (p. 210); Mattan has no friends even among those who are also subject to arbitrary authority. “YOU WOULD NOT HANG A DOG ON HER EVIDENCE,” rages Mattan of one of his accusers, and yet there is no stopping a prosecution case which seems paper-thin.

Mattan is blamed even for this. “You seem to be forgetting your own role in this debacle,” his defence lawyer tells him. “[You] came across as belligerent and shifty” (p. 307). What other choice would a man in Mattan’s position, falsely accused and asked absurd questions based on the testimony of malicious accusers, have? It is the corner into which he has been knowingly forced. Some of the novel’s most poetic moments come when Mattan first adopts and then rejects Islam as a consoling influence in prison; ultimately he can find no satisfactory explanation, not justice, in his situation. “They’re doing this because they haven’t broken me,” he ultimately decides. “If I had lost my mind and sat weeping in my own shit, maybe then they’d be happy to send me to a madhouse” (p. 361). Reader, Mattan is not sent to the madhouse; he instead goes to a gallows hidden behind his own wardrobe.

The Fortune Men espouses a cold anger – its rage is incisive for its patience. If the novel might have been even more focused – if it makes a few mis-steps here or there in its attempts to encompass its case – then it nevertheless remains an unusual and challenging mixture of conviction and conditionality, a novel clear as to what it thinks but also open to the complexity of real life. Real life, indeed, is its subject: not the myth of Britain, but the reality of its locaity’s “post-colonial” experiences, the truth of its various communities and the reckonings that they require. For the Booker to be able to shortlist a novel such as this – which is not just critically about but of Britain – is a sign itself that writers such as Mohamed are, slowly, but with undeterred diligence, having their desired effect.


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