by Nuruddin Farah. Penguin, 1999. 304 pages.

Secrets, set in Somalia in the tense period just before the dissolution of Mohammed Siad Barre's regime into the chaos of clan warfare, is a big philosophical novel told in alternating voices, and replete with a bewildering system of symbols, a variety of secrets, sexual and otherwise, and some of the most peculiar yet engaging language in modern literature. Though Secrets is the third novel in the Blood in the Sun trilogy (the others are Maps and Gifts), it stands as a self-contained novel.

As the book begins, Kalaman, a Somali man with a successful computing business, has been visited by Sholoongo, a childhood playmate who has just returned from the US, where she is married to a man referred to as a Moroccan fire-eater. As a ten-year-old boy, Kalaman played sexual games with the fourteen-year-old Sholoongo, who (we later learn) had also made advances to Kalaman's grandfather Nonno.

Sholoongo is the tumultuous, sexually insatiable center of many of the secrets that swirl around this novel. In addition to Kalaman and Nonno, she is suspected of having had relations with her own brother (though he has since become a gay activist in San Francisco) and of an entanglement with Kalaman's father. Sholoongo is said to be a shape-shifter, and when an elephant kills a hunter who was Kalaman's childhood friend, goring him in his hut and then carrying away a pile of ivory, some suspect her of having become the elephant. Her purpose now, which she states straightforwardly but does not explain, is to have a child by Kalaman.

In counterpoint to Sholoongo is the novel's other major character: Kalaman's grandfather Miftaax, known as Nonno after the Italian for "grandfather." A chainsmoking, nonobservant Muslim, sexually vigorous in his eighties, Nonno is an endlessly philosophical ruminator, the source of many cryptic monologues on the subject of his turbulent family and the growing political crisis in Somalia. "I cannot imagine a world without taboos, a culture without its notion of right and wrong," he tells his grandson. "Honors are maintained, pledges kept, gods worshipped. It is anathema to imagine a world in which there are no secrets. Secrets have a life energy, they keep us alive." A man of special powers as well as intellect, he can summon birds and speak to them in their language. If Sholoongo is an uncontrollable force of anarchy, Nonno in his cloud of cigarette smoke is a still point and a comforting anchor for those around him, even when they (and we) may not understand him.

Farah has a creative way with similes, which the reader may find either irritating or intriguing. "My neck, with which the palm of my hand came into contact, felt rough as a giraffe's coat of stretchy skin." "Nonno's voice had in it a touch of humidity, which affected his delivery, making his words emerge curled up like the pages a fax machine spits out." Farah sometimes turns familiar clichés inside out, making them yield fresh new meanings. Like the early novels of Saul Bellow, Secrets gives the impression of a new literary style being formed, strange yet powerful, and giving promise for the future.

From Secrets:

Now Kalaman had the shivers. An instant later he was so hot the sheet covering him seemed to curl up at the edges, like a piece of paper close to a tongue of flame. His reflection in the mirror startled him. He had difficulty acknowledging his own face. So much change in such a short time, and such a loss of weight. Could a day's stubble be that preponderous? He felt alien to himself when he looked in the mirror, as though he were face-to-face with his nightmares, of which he had so far had several.

In one of them, Kalaman had come in on his mother chewing away at the soft ends of a human skull. Disturbed, he asked her who the skull had belonged to, when alive. His mother explained that it once belonged to the head of a person from an "enemy clan." Would he like a bite of it? In another nightmare, he was a newt in the vast belly of a whale, at whose intestine it pulled in an effort to get out. The whale was branded with the identity of his mother's clan on one flank, on the other his father's. He was a prisoner in the whale's all-inclusiveness, a newt-man with no recognizable identity. His wish to reclaim his deracinated, not-clan-based identity was denied. He was given the choice of dying at the hands of a nonmember of his mother's clan or his father's, or to roam in the belly of the whale as a newt. He chose to be a newt, preferring this to allying himself with the murderers.