10/3/2022
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Racism, a stacked system — Nadifa Mohamed’s Booker-shortlisted novel ‘The Fortune Men’ shows not much has changed since 1952


Friday December 10, 2021

On September 3, 1952, a Somali man named Mahmood Mattan was hanged in Cardiff, Wales, for the murder of a Jewish shop owner named Lily Volpert. In 1998, 46 years after Mattan’s execution, following years of campaigning by his widow, Laura, a judicial review found the case against Mattan to be “fatally flawed.” These are the true facts of the case.

In fictionalizing this story of a lethal miscarriage of justice, Somali-born British writer Nadifa Mohamed has crafted a mesmerizing novel that, notwithstanding its historical setting, has disconcerting resonance for the present.

“The Fortune Men,” which was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, manages an intimate presentation of Mattan’s experience by way of a present-tense, close third-person narration. Mohamed provides her reader with a nuanced, closely observed psychological portrait of a man who was guilty of many things, but not the crime for which he was sentenced to die.

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In Mohamed’s portrayal, Mattan is a gambler, a thief and a womanizer, though he also shares a deep emotional connection to his white Welsh wife and their three small sons. Mohamed insists on his full humanity while also making clear the extent to which he was scapegoated by a racist and uncaring judicial system.

Mohamed’s approach in this regard is canny. The trial itself is cast in the form of court transcripts in which a succession of prosecution witnesses provide patently contradictory evidence mixed with prevarication and outright lies.

One key witness against Mattan identifies him only after being offered a reward and being coerced by the police. Even Mattan’s own lawyer refers to him in court as a “child of nature” and a “semi-civilized savage.” “I’m not going to insult your intelligence, members of the jury, by suggesting that anything he has said at any time is true,” Mattan’s lawyer tells the court before insisting that his client’s lack of honesty does not make him a murderer.




 





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