LINKS

By Nuruddin Farah. Riverhead. 336 pp. $24.95

In Links, the latest novel by one of Africa's most revered writers, a Somali exile named Jeebleh returns to his woeful nation for the first time in more than two decades. He has a kidnapped girl to rescue, a deceased mother's spirit to soothe and a violent score to settle with a tormentor who once had him imprisoned.

But for Nuruddin Farah, himself an exile from Somalia since the mid-1970s, narrative drive and plot twists are secondary to explorations of personal identity, character and the complex ways these are shaped by international events. Farah, winner of the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and often rumored to be on the short list for the Nobel, is the author of two trilogies that explore the fractured Somali identity. His latest effort confronts the effects of civil war, the conflict between his lead character's postmodern sensibility and ancient traditions, and the contrasting ties of friendship and family clan.

The novel tells the intertwined histories of Jeebleh, his close friend Bile and Bile's violent half-brother, Caloosha. When they were boys, their mothers combined households to save expenses, meaning that their sons grew up as siblings. Jeebleh and Caloosha's fathers were from the same clan, while Bile's father was from a rival group. Nevertheless, Jeebleh and Bile bonded like brothers. Caloosha was so violently abused by Bile's father that, at the age of 9, the boy apparently killed the man with a poisoned arrow.

Not surprisingly, Caloosha matured into a sadistic brute. He became the deputy director of the National Security Service during the dictatorship of Mohammed Siad Barre and, in that role, arrested and imprisoned his childhood rivals, Bile and Jeebleh.

Here, the paths of the three young men separated. Jeebleh, mysteriously released from prison, left for America, became a university professor in New York, married and raised two children. Bile, a doctor, got out of prison when the regime collapsed and remained in Somalia during the subsequent civil war. Caloosha became a murderous warlord.

That's the backstory, told in periodic flashbacks; as the book opens, Jeebleh is returning to a hellish Somalia after the death of his mother and the kidnapping of Bile's mystical young niece, Raasta. He settles in a grimy hotel in the northern part of Mogadiscio (Farah's spelling of Mogadishu), an area dominated by the clan to which he and Caloosha belong. But when he rebuffs Caloosha's overtures and refuses to pay for the repair of one of the clan's war vehicles, he infuriates his own tribal elders. Facing murderous reprisals, he flees to Bile's home in the southern part of the city, where Bile's clan rules.

This device, though a bit obvious, allows Farah to examine the contrasting ties between ancient clans and modern friendship. In the novel's second half, Jeebleh and Bile renew their relationship in the search for Raasta -- and the attempt to settle scores with Caloosha. The story then unfolds, with somewhat less drama than might have been expected.

Farah's devotees will note some autobiographical overlap between Jeebleh and his creator. Farah also was forced into exile in the 1970s and is also a university professor who lived for a time in New York (but has most often resided in a series of African nations, currently South Africa). And like Jeebleh, Farah briefly returned to Somalia in the mid-1990s.

But these are a biographer's footnotes. The most impressive and valuable thing about another Farah novel about Somalia is that it exists at all. To outsiders, Somalia is a byword for chaos and anarchy. Throughout his career, Farah has systematically, even heroically, provided insight into the lives of the men and women of Somalia in an intimate and convincing manner. Farah is also extending the range of his work into the political realm, using his novels as a forum for exploring the domestic and international politics at play in Somalia and post-colonial Africa generally. His judgments are often unsparing.

"I have not desisted from censuring Africa for watching with mind-boggling indifference while the Somalis destroyed themselves, while the country collapsed into absolute anarchy," he wrote in the New York Times in Dec. 1992. "I will spare you my outrage at the Arab, the Muslim and the nonaligned leagues of which Somalia is a member. They are not worth my bother." In Links, his characters make it clear that they are also seething over the ill-fated American-led expedition into Somalia, which at least in theory tried to stop the fighting.

By the novel's end, Jeebleh again leaves Somalia, consoling himself that "he and his friends were forever linked through the chains of the stories they shared." In a country ripped to shreds by clan-based warfare and the collapse of almost all notions of civil society, it is an elegant statement of what actually bonds people together: common experience, love and commitment. This is the terrain of humanity that Nuruddin Farah patiently illuminates, one novel at a time. *

Neely Tucker, a Washington Post staff writer and the author of "Love in the Driest Season," lived in and reported on sub-Saharan Africa from 1997-2000.