High-octane, high-seas shanties; eye-patches and cutlasses; bounties and buccaneers: all are conspicuous by their absence in 'Crossbones', Nuruddin Farah's gruelling yet gripping account of life in modern-day Somalia - it's piracy, but not as we know it.
Farah is ideally placed to examine the extraordinary strife afflicting his homeland, which he talks about in an excellent recent Guardian interview. 'Crossbones' - its piratical reference deployed with a delicious hint of irony - is the third and final book of his latest trilogy, though it stands alone. Where 'Links' (2006) explored the post-US invasion rise of Mogadishu's clan warlords, and 'Knots' (2007) concentrated on its virtual takeover by the hardline Islamist group Shaabab, 'Crossbones' is set in the vacuum of power that followed: Ethiopia is preparing to invade, Shaabab are scurrying for cover, and a murderous lawlessness reigns. 'Let's face it,' explains one of a seemingly limitless number of shady go-betweens, 'I, too, like so many others, profited from the turmoil. Turbulence upsets things, sends the dregs to the top. We are enjoying the turmoil and are unfettered by tax laws, a parliament issuing decrees, a dictator passing edicts, a government declaring draconian measures: the ideal situation for growth of capital.'
'Crossbones' charts the respective journeys of Jeebleh, his son-in-law Malik, and Malik's brother, Ahl, all American citizens, who return to their homeland ostensibly in order to search for Ahl's adopted son Taxliil, who has disappeared along with a group of other young Somali-American men from their homes in Minnesota, said to have been recruited by Shaabab with the lure of martyrdom.
While Jeebleh and Malik, a ambitious and intrepid war correspondent who intends to use the trip to file state-of-the-nation features, head to the chaotic capital, Ahl bases himself in semi-automous Puntland, where relative peace reigns, but so-called piracy proliferates.
Farah travelled extensively in Somalia to research his novel, and it shows. He has described his quest to chronicle the gradual breakdown of his homeland as a desire 'to keep my country alive by writing about it.'
'Crossbones' often feels as much Farah's personal interpretation of his nation as it does out-and-out fiction: while the search for Taxliil always underpins the novel, the plot unfurls slowly, often through long conversational pieces and the author's own exposition. This is not intended as a negative, far from it - though those who prefer their pirate adventures to do exactly what they say on the tin perhaps ought to look away now (Elmore Leonard's cliche-laden 'Djibouti' would be a good place to start).
What emerges out of a tough, complicated but rewarding read is a vivid portrait of a country clinging onto its nationhood by its fingertips, where chronic paranoia places journalists at the top of innumberable hit-lists, and where religious radicalization is rife among the young, often inadvertently perpetuated by the clumsy actions of the west.
But what the Somalis whom Malik and Ahl encounter in their search for Taxliil seem most eager to shatter is the myth that Puntland's pirates live lives of luxury, funded by multi-million dollar off-shore ransoms. The reality, they insist, is entirely different: its stocks decimated by illegal incursions into their waters, Somalia's northern fishing fleet had little option but to pursue foreign ships for a form of insurance: from it grew a headline-grabbing industry driven by bankers and shipping magnates across the world, who divide the so-called ransom between themselves, leaving next to nothing for the kid in the skiff with the AK47 slung awkwardly round his neck, except the vilification of the watching world, and the ridiculous re-drawing of him as some sort of modern-day Blackbeard.
There's no glamour here. Farah's writing is hard and unflinching, shorn of all unnecessary accoutrements, and while his love for his country shines through, so too does his pessimism for its future:
'While there is always a beginning to an argument, there is never an end, never a logical conclusion to their disputation. Somalis are in a rich form when holding forth; they are in their element when they are spilling blood.'
For piratical stereotypes, direct yourself to Elmore Leonard. For a fascinating and exhaustive insight into what is really happening in the Horn of Africa, look beyond the news headlines and find a way to Nuruddin Farah.