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. He had weighed the costs of forcing his wife to accept Asad, and he had calculated that it was too high a price to pay.
Imbued with the indomitable resilience one so often meets in Africa, Asad ping-pongs from refugee camps to Nairobi’s Eastleigh district, from Addis Ababa to the Ogaden, to Dire Dawa and back again to Addis, learning how to live on his wits.
His determination to better himself takes him to South Africa, and it is there that he finally hits something more powerful than his own aspirations: community hatred. Steinberg met Asad as the frustrations of that country’s underclass were taking vicious xenophobic form. He experiences a new, devastating scapegoating as once friendly customers and trusted business partners turn on the Somalis, stabbing, shooting and burning alive the outsiders.
Summarising the story in this way makes it sound like some transcontinental misery memoir, but this is no such thing. A Man of Good Hope sits on a higher level of storytelling, thanks to the meditative artery that runs through the book: reflections on the shifting nature of memory, insights into how communities and city landscapes mould one another, an exploration of what it is to be a man worthy of respect.
A beautiful, limpid writer, Steinberg is fascinated by the quest each individual undertakes to work out who he is and where he belongs. ‘At the back of all of our thoughts and our actions, I think, stands an image of a completed life, a sense of who we will have been at the moment of our deaths.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Asad found himself unable to read Steinberg’s completed account. ‘It is one thing to fish for memories and present them to me in my car,’ acknowledges the author, ‘but to see himself on the page, from a distance, to see this boy kicked through life like a stone: the reading strips him of his guard. He stands before his childhood stark naked.’
The ending, which I will not spoil, is happier than I expected: fate does concede to cut Asad, damaged but still determined, a little bit of slack. Which is just as well, because by the time you reach the last pages you cannot help but care what happens to this member of a continent’s storm-driven flotsam and jetsam.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Michela Wrong has written books on Kenya (It’s Our Turn to Eat), Eritrea (I Didn’t Do It for You) and Congo (In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz).