THE FORTUNE MEN
By Nadifa Mohamed
Mahmood Hussein Mattan was the last man to be executed by hanging in Cardiff, Wales, in 1952. A seaman from British Somaliland residing in Cardiff, Mattan was wrongfully convicted of the murder of Lily Volpert, a Jewish shopkeeper and moneylender, in the predominantly immigrant community of Tiger Bay.
In her third novel, “The Fortune Men,” shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Somali-British writer Nadifa Mohamed returns to this real-life case to explore the centuries-long histories of the British Empire, of Somali presence in Britain, of the nation’s anti-Black violence, of the institution of prison in the West. It’s a subject close to the author’s heart; Mohamed has compared Mattan’s biography to her own father’s, both merchant sailors who were born in the same city and came to England at the same age. “You can see those young men who were thrown into postwar Britain,” she told The Guardian, “and found humor here, found love here, found terror here.”
Mohamed balances colonial history and violence with the evocative interior lives of Mahmood and Violet Volacki, a fictionalized Volpert. The opening chapters follow each of their lives in Tiger Bay — a heterogenous community populated by immigrants from various former colonies: West Africans, Maltese, Sikhs, Muslims, Chinese, Yemenis, Somalis, poor whites — from the days leading up to her murder through his hanging. Violet never married and is the only income provider for her all-female household, which includes her sister and niece. Their ancestors were Russian Jews who came to Wales in the early 1920s to escape persecution.
Mahmood lives a short distance from his wife and three sons, in a boardinghouse with West Indian immigrant seamen, with whom “he has no common language, culture or religion.” There he is nicknamed “the Ghost” because of his constant ambling at night, when — to avoid police harassment — he has learned to wander unnoticed. Mahmood’s path to Cardiff began in his teens, with a long journey from Somaliland down to South Africa, to a port where he boarded a merchant navy ship traveling around the British Empire. In Cardiff, his marriage to a poor white teenager named Laura meets hostility: “They could only find black-walled, squalid places to rent as a mixed couple.” Against this backdrop, Mohamed brilliantly depicts the complexities of community within the Black diaspora, in a region where Mahmood’s “Somalihood matters to the West Africans and West Indians who take him for an Arab rather than one of them.”