Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Nurrudin Farah's “The Start of the Affair” was originally published in the December 22 & 29, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
“The Start of the Affair” is set in Pretoria, South Africa, and has as its central character one James MacPherson, “a retired professor of politics” who now owns a restaurant “specializing in North African cuisine.”
Right away, I muse whether the setting is Pretoria or the restaurant, given that James truly enjoys the restaurant; in fact, he “derives great joy from being in the restaurant.”
But before I can finish the first page I have to pause and look things up. James used to teach at Wits, or the University of the Witwatersrand, a place that was originally founded as a university of mines, which reminds me of South Africa’s wealth and also its dark past. Even though Wits was segregated during the apartheid era, it is remembered as a center of anti-apartheid activism. Is this important? I don’t know, but I think it might be.
I notice that James is “known for his seminal work on the Frontline States’ war of attrition against the apartheid regime.” I have to stop and look up Frontline states. Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and, from 1980, Zimbabwe joined together to oppose apartheid in South Africa. But, in fact, numerous factors combined to make them relatively ineffective in their opposition. For one thing, South Africa was comparatively much stronger militarily. For another, citizens in these countries often worked in South Africa, further muddying the waters. So I gather that the narrator is perhaps being a little sarcastic when he refers to James’s work as “seminal.” What has been introduced, however, is the idea that South Africa is a kind of place where immigrants come to work.
Right now James is working on a book, but he likes to sit at a corner table in the restaurant, “surrounded by the papers on which he has scribbled his notes for a book he intends to lick into shape.”
I know that people nowadays often claim to write in coffee shops and other public places, but the narrator signals his doubt about James’s seriousness with the word “scribbled,” as well as his terrific phrasing — that James is going to “lick” the thing “into shape.” It’s dry. It’s funny. There’s a bit of contempt. And in the word “lick” there is the double meaning — to beat and to eat — a double meaning that continues through the story having to do with all of James’s interactions.
Not too much further and I find out that James is not in good shape: he’s fat, his feet are swollen, and he cannot touch his toes. But he enjoys being part of the life of the restaurant and watching the bustle of the place. Particularly, “James observes the young men with keener interest than he does their female colleagues or clients.”
So the bones of the story have now been set up: James is a kind of lord of the manor, a kind of wicked witch with a cottage made of candy, and he has a perch from which he can pose and from which he can survey the landscape for suitable prey.
What I notice now, though, is the fact that James has somehow accumulated the money to buy a restaurant. I think — well, maybe it’s just a little hole in the wall. But no, there are waiters, in the plural, there are chefs and sous-chefs, and there’s a manager. I wonder where a professor has gotten the money for this enterprise.
James has his eye on a particular young man from Somalia. The narrator fills us in on James’s ethics: James had once been drawn to a “young thing” when he was working in Tanzania, but he had resisted taking any liberties with the boy because he respected the boy’s mother and father too much. James felt “beholden” to them, because they had done him so many favors.
Now a retired professor of means, James thinks about Ahmed, the young man who often comes to his restaurant. James pursues him to his place of work. It is obvious the young man is poor; James thinks about how “everything has a price.” He wishes he could ask Ahmed how much Ahmed would charge for an embrace.
So there is to be a seduction. But there is more. There are the complications of class and the inequalities of experience, money and opportunity. Not to mention that Ahmed is beautiful and James is, well, repulsive, and Ahmed is young and James is old.
It seems that Ahmed’s father is a Somali war-lord:
Ali-Mooryaan is one of the wealthiest men in Somalia,” [a friend tells James]. “He ‘owns’ many villas on Mogadishu’s seafront and has bought properties in Nairobi and in the Emirates. He has funded piracy, and he has made money out of exporting hard drugs via a small airstrip fifty kilometres outside Mogadishu.
It also seems that in his escape from Somalia, Ahmed had gotten into a lot of trouble in Tanzania, enough that he ended up in prison. He claims that although his three friends were raped by the prison guards and the other prisoners, Ahmed himself had been “spared.” And the whole thing was repeated in Malawi. One of the boys was “spared” when he became “the wife” of the prison warden.
And then, Ahmed is offered that same opportunity by James.
The reader is left with several choices: to look down on James, or Ahmed, or both of them, for their compromises, evasions, and misrepresentations, and the way they are both on the look-out for the main chance, which for James would be companionship and beauty, and for Ahmed, survival. In addition, one has to wonder at the possible goodness in the whole thing — whether James, despite all his faults, cares for the boy and gives him some kind of safety, some kind of opportunity to recover from whatever horrors he had been through.
I like the way the story is deepened by how James slowly learns how the young men like Ahmed live — how they have almost nothing, live in an environment that is more nothing than home, and still send money to their families back home. Despite considering himself a man of the world, James is a fairly ignorant man.
But the way Nuruddin Farah has set the story up, the reader slowly realizes that she is as ignorant as James. I enjoyed the measured narration, the slyness of some of the narrator’s observations, and the wobbling the story does on the subject of whether the situation is good or bad. One of the pair is going to get taken, but it is not clear yet which one.
One way you look at it, James is benevolent. In another way, he is just another kind of war-lord. One way you look at it, Ahmed is prey. In another, he’s a war-lord-in-waiting.
When I began, I wondered whether the setting were Pretoria or the restaurant. In fact, I think the setting is the restaurant — i.e., the setting is the kind of place immigrants work, the kind of conditions they work in, and the kind of temptations they face; the restaurant is also where people with a little money set up a kingdom and call the shots. Not just in Africa, either, I suspect.
And the setting is Somalia, as viewed from afar, as seen obliquely. The story reminds us of Somalia, that it exists, that it is the kind of place Farah describes. The author keeps Somalia alive for us, so to speak, even though it feels like a place that must be escaped, a place you barely escape, to judge by its effect on Ahmed, who seems only half alive. James’s restaurant specializes in North African cuisine. James himself specializes in North African boys — as if Farah is suggesting that James will consume Ahmed, that people like James consume people like Ahmed, as if Ahmed is a delicacy who can be prepared, like a dish, and eaten.
This story is uninterested in the neuroses of millennials. What a relief. Instead, it is interested in the way poverty expresses itself, the way people can be tempted to buy other people — when the differentials are so great. The story is also interested in the way others are willing to be bought, given that the differentials are so great. The reader is left to ponder what will be gained, in the end, and what will be lost.
The reader is left to compare Ahmed’s father (the war-lord) to Ahmed’s lover (the restauranteur), as well as the lawless state of Somalia and the somewhat lawless state of immigrant life. The story is rich in its suggestiveness and I have not actually begun to understand the various levels of collusion, lying, and aggression that Farah is suggesting.
I found this story interesting from beginning to end. I would like to read more by Nuruddin Farah.