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.
I had the same idea about the title playing off Greene’s, but once I got into the story I quickly concluded that the two are entirely unrelated.
I’ll offer a few abbreviated thoughts here but, as usual, my full review is at http://www.majnunbd.com.
Overall, this story fascinated me by sparking a range of questions about power and displacement in Africa, though my reaction might be due to the years I spent living and working in Africa. I confess to being less moved by the characters, neither of which I found particularly sympathetic or compelling. Instead, I was struck by how a seemingly “stock” interaction (old rich person tries to bribe young attractive poor person into a sexual relationship) could, in the masterful hands of Farah, tease out such a range of thoughts and questions about much larger issues in Africa today. I think this story is a great example of how one can learn much from literature, not in a didactic way, but in a deep way.
A few specific points from my review, presented in no particular order:
The two main characters, MacPherson the South African and Ahmed the Somali, both have experiences in Tanzania that involve being “beholden” to others, but with wildly different consequences. This disparity is not simply a matter of economics, as Ahmed comes from a powerful and wealthy family. Indeed, Ahmed learned English from a private tutor “imported” (Farah’s word) from Tanzania. That the tutor comes from Tanzania, where Ahmed is subsequently imprisoned and perhaps raped, is unlikely to be a coincidence, as Somalia does not share a border with Tanzania — the much more obvious source for such a tutor would be neighboring Kenya. Instead, I think Farah is commenting on the consequences of displacement: while in Somalia, Ahmed was served by a Tanzanian tutor who presumably relied on Ahmed’s father for his safety, but while in Tanzania, Ahmed is entirely at the mercy of others.
I think it’s important to realize that Ahmed, while poor, is definitely a number of rungs above the bottom of the ladder in South Africa — he manages his own small shop, albeit without making much money it seems (he sleeps in the shop and subsists on leftovers from MacPherson’s restaurant). From the perspective of many Somalis (and South Africans), Ahmed is quite fortunate indeed. And yet once displaced from Somalia, he is easy prey for the likes of MacPherson.
I think it’s also worth noting that the shop Ahmed runs exists due to capital provided by his father who, we are told, got rich by looting the national wealth of Somalia. So neither of Ahmed’s two main options for subsistence (the shop or MacPherson) come with much in the way of integrity or morality.
Ahmed slowly but surely comes to rely on MacPherson for his support, eventually realizing (it seems) the intended transactional nature of the relationship. At that point, Ahmed begins neglecting the shop — presumably because he feels he now has a new and more lucrative job — to the point that it is robbed and then looted, a fitting end for a shop started with looted capital.
The above is a little scattershot, but my full review is lengthy and so I tried to pick out a few points that might be of interest to folks here.
Do you th?nk it is actually an excerpt from Nurrudin Farrah’s forthcoming novel?
I don’t think this is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel. First, Farah just published a novel (“Hiding in Plain Sight”) in October. Second, in the brief interview with him that accompanies the story, Farah says “The story came to me between the time I completed my latest novel, ‘Hiding in Plain Sight,’ and when I submitted it.” Third, the story seems entirely self-contained to me. But with New Yorker stories, that’s always a good question to ask.
My thoughts and comments above were posted before Betsy’s review.
In regards to your review, Betsy, I can offer a few clarifications …
Wits, or the University of the Witwatersrand is (with apologies to UCT) the leading university in South Africa, and probably all of Africa. I’d say its prestige is more relevant to the story than its origin as a school of mines.
MacPherson’s scholarly research on the Frontline States’ resistance to apartheid could absolutely have been seminal even if their opposition was largely ineffectual — history may be written by the winners, but you don’t have to write about the winners to be a winning historian — so I don’t think Farah intends sarcasm. Instead, I draw a connection with the travel restrictions the Frontline States placed on South Africans during apartheid.
Betsy asks “I wonder where a professor has gotten the money for this enterprise [a restaurant with multiple staff members].” The first phrase of the story tells us that he bought it, “At a fire sale a few years ago ….” Also, labor costs in South Africa, and other developing nations, are usually ridiculously low. So even if he hadn’t gotten a bargain, it’s entirely plausible that a retired professor would be able to own a restaurant with many employees, just as he (and anyone else of his economic class who cares to) has several house staff.
Betsy writes, “James’s restaurant specializes in North African cuisine. James himself specializes in North African boys….” Actually, James seems to specialize on East African boys — Somalia and Tanzania are both firmly in East Africa. The (many) cultures and cuisines of East Africa are entirely distinct from the (many) cultures and cuisines of North Africa. To me, the importance of James’s connections to various parts of Africa is that it shows us how he has been able to travel across the African continent without any real problems (he does fall ill in Tanzania, but a family there assists him), in contrast to Ahmed’s experience. Again, as I noted, this difference is not simply a matter of economics.
Finally, I’d emphasize that Ahmed is at least a few rungs above the bottom of the economic ladder in South Africa. He manages a shop that he apparently owns (or, rather, owns on behalf of his father back in Somallia). Even before MacPherson gives him anything, he has a phone and the cash to buy medicines. It’s nowhere implied in the story, but having some familiarity with this world, I’d rank it as near certain that Ahmed had been paying the restaurant staff for the daily lunch bag they give him (if they were truly giving away leftovers for free, it would quickly draw a crowd of people far less well-off than Ahmed). So the important point here in terms of the story is that Ahmed absolutely does not need MacPherson in order to survive or thrive. Ahmed is already economically “ahead” of a rather significant portion of the South African populace (though his immigration status is a large asterisk here). Instead, it is the disparity between Ahmed’s station, especially in terms of his immigration status, and what MacPherson can offer that renders Ahmed vulnerable to MacPherson’s inducements.
I do like the point Betsy makes about James being relatively ignorant of the practical aspects of how other, less wealthy, people live, and that part of the arc of the story is James coming to better understand the specifics of those lives, and their stark limitations, beyond his more academic knowledge of their culture.
Again, as usual, my full review is at http://www.majnunbd.com, but it was posted on Monday morning and so does not take into account Betsy’s subsequent review.
Majnun – thank you for your excellent assay of this story. I found myself informed with a much deeper understanding.
I agree completely that Farah is “masterful” as you say. There is something very deft about how he uses the role of the narrator – something about the tone – to comment on the story he is telling.
so Majnun – I thought one of the mysteries of the story, and one of the reasons it worked so well, is Mac Pherson’s race is completely muddy. Could be anyone. Which, I think, is Farah’s point.
What do you think?
I agree that the story does not explicitly give the race of MacPherson, but I think it is quite clear that he is a white South African. His last name screams European rather than African. He was a professor at Wits for decades, but the first black faculty member there (Es’kia Mphahlele) was hired in just 1979. So if MacPherson were somehow black, he would be extremely well-known for having been among the first (and very few) black faculty at Wits. He married a Portuguese woman, and while the story discusses some family concerns about this, race is unmentioned. I don’t mean to speak for an entire country, but I’m pretty sure any South African reading this story would read MacPherson as white without giving it a second thought. I suspect that this is also part of Farah’s point: someone’s race can only go unmentioned in South Africa if that race is white, otherwise, it intrudes, even in the post-apartheid era.
Some enjoy playing at being an old fool so much they start very early. It is, after all, so much safer than taking the major risks and proving they to everyone that they are right.
We have met these fellows before. We have met them in Tennessee Williams, we have met them in Vladamir Nabokov, and we have met them earlier this year right in this magazine:
James is young, far younger than I. When you are the older man, you can be equal, for a time. He has youth and beauty, but you have money and experience. You know many people, and you can take him to Portofino, to Biarritz, to Capri. It is an old story.
But the years go by, and your doctor is concerned for your heart. Your joints are not so good. You don’t want to look in the mirror when you go to take a bath. And the man you love is still strong and young, more or less. He travels a great deal. He is away more often. The dog knew the first time she saw him: he was not the one to rely on.
That’s right, the former banker from Madame Lazarus by Maile Meloy from the June 23, 2014 Issue of The New Yorker.
Our older protagonist, be it man or woman, has “ballooned outward” around the waist, is swollen at the ankles, and has developed facial tics which may easily be deemed as unattractive. The younger is always pretty, the older has dogs. The lovely in our world are loved, at least more reliably than the old and formerly fit. That James loves Ahmed is no surprise, but, in fact, neither is the fact that Ahmed says, “Please, not now, in the same tone of voice a woman uses when she says that she has her monthly.
But in fact James has been risk-averse for decades, and has taken pride in it. The Ethiopian lad he never touched. His strangely unromantic reasons his wife had appealed to him: she had no local family to host her on weekends or holidays, and no one to worry about her if she didn’t come home but spent a few days at his apartment, in Claremont. Moreover, she was willing to go to his digs whenever he invited her. When he learns the truth about Ahmed’s father, is his only reaction is that he derives some pleasure from thinking that Ahmed is unlikely to return to Somalia for quite some time, given the precariousness of the politics there. And even though his father is powerful, Ahmed seems to lack that kind of ruthlessness. Perhaps he will be happy to stay out of his father’s sphere of influence once James assures him of a firm foothold in South Africa from which he can further his own career. That all sounds strikingly familiar to his attractions to his wife. And Ahmed has surely learned unruthless ways to take care of himself at the hands of his jailors.
I am now an old fool myself, waistline expanded, delighted with my life. For me, it’s a cat. And I know I could be felled in the blink of an eye; one believes oneself to be invulnerable to “all that” by this point. But we are never invulnerable; the old heart has lost it’s swift and elastic defense, and its storming can surprise and keep you up at night.
Great post, Lily. Thanks for the “Madame Lazarus” comparison.
Thank you, Betsy.
You asked a question earlier regarding how I might categorize this story on my list. And you’re right — it’s more difficult to place it somewhere on the list.
I have begun to think of the New Yorker fiction department as worshiping at the Church of the Surreal; why say what you mean when you can just grow hair on it and let the readers figure it out. I won’t re-run the list here, but it’s here: https://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2014/12/08/elizabeth-mckenzie-savage-breast/comment-page-1/#comment-175067.
This story, James and Ahmed — does not strike me as remotely surreal; people are tender, are rash, all of our shared embarrassment is there on the page. Thank goodness neither man broke out in cobalt blue rashes! Of the three departments I defined on the list, Druggies, Toons, and Extremely Disfunctional Families, none fits.
It’s easy to see the surrealism in the 25% of the stories I deemed as “toons.” When statues start following you around town you know that ship has left the port. The druggies stories perhaps could have been made more surreal by upping the religiosity of the delusions, it’s true.
But even in the “family” stories, we have history hung on the wings of birds, women who show up out of the blue for men who may be “the prisoner.” We even have a mad horse and a whole bunch of magicians. Where is Dali when you need him?
I don’t know about you, but I went through my surrealism phase back in the ’60s; at this point, to me, it all seems a bit much.
I like the political dimensions of the piece. An academic of liberal standing can still behave in a fashion which reinvokes colonialism and class privilege. I don’t think the main character is a bad person, not a witch with a gingerbread house either, but someone who may have worked for social justice and who is certainly not a crude exploiter yet will use his economic power and the advantages of his white skin (he is clearly white per the comments above by Majnun) to try and get what he wants. Yet…he never really forces himself on Ahmed until the end and even there he backs off somewhat. Somewhat—this is the story’s tone. He is partly exploiter, definitely selfish, yet also must possess some of his political ideals. We never see him cruel or nasty to anyone either. I ultimately like this as a piece of ambiguous writing which asks questions–more of less what Betsy liked.
[…] In the past week I’ve spent a lot of time on Naruddin Farah’s excellent New Yorker story The Start of the Affair. Click on the link to read the story online and check out the discussion of the story at the Mookse and Gripes blog. […]
Thank you Majnun, Betsy, Lily and Ken for your great insight! I now see that the greatness in this story is in how it illuminates Africa’s complex dynamics.
hi all…good comments….i’ll add mine for what it is worth.
While the story clearly is written with the hand of a man who owns a strong understanding of itchy political and social and economic topics in Africa, the story itself bored me stiff and felt far more like an idea or some set of ideas has been reverse engineered into a story. Without knowing anything of the origin of the character names, it was clear about two seconds after his hemming and hawing about about his dad that he was a warlord. And the power politics of class he wrote about didn’t strike me firstly as realistic (much more like a fable) but certainly if one is to suspend disbelief, this story didn’t strike me as a particularly unique take on class or political or economic divides.
Nothing about what occurred surprised me at all. I feel bad for not being blown over by this story and wowed by the deft hand that has written such a cutting story about power or politics or economics or gay issues – Ahmed, at the end, struck me as a very sharp guy and will perfectly navigate another year or two with MacPherson, putting off advances to advance himself.
I just don’t know, the whole story just struck me as a health pill to be swallowed, a bit of castor oil, not sure if it taught me anything new. Probably it is just me – but this writing comes on the heels of having recently reread The Overcoat. I’m a fan of the Russians, majored in the damn language just so I could read all of ??????????? in the original. Farah didn’t zing me like Gogol or like many others do.
And while I note above that this was stated as a standalone, I’m not entirely convinced of that – I think this story would be infinitely improved by finding itself on pages 223-228 of a 400 page novel that had a developed a contextual topography that would give this wan salt pan of a story a little needed moisture.
I really appreciate the enlightening comments, particularly the insights into the world about which Farah writes. I am interested in the exchange between Ahmed and James regarding how names work in Somali culture and would appreciate more information on the name Mooryaan as it distinguishes the father from other “Alis.” The interchange highlights James’s attempt to be familiar (in every sense), but also Ahmed’s ability to parry, keeping his own counsel. Although this is a story of seduction of course, I also see it as one of the rare occasions where there is at least a comfortable outcome; each man gets what he wants. If I were Lily, I would add a classification: love story, and I would put this entry into it. And thank God, no zombies.
Madwoman — Well of course! Thank you! An obvious oblivious oversight on my part!
“Mooryaan” is Somali slang (at least in Mogadishu) for a ruthless thug, such as a militia member. It’s not a term of praise or respect, by any means.
Thanks so much, Majnun – for this recent comment, and all of your other commentary as well – always crisp, clear and interesting.