In Nadifa Mohamed’s Latest, a Man Hangs for a Murder He Didn’t Commit

By Nadifa Mohamed New York Times

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.”
After Mahmood’s arrest, the novel shifts its focus to the British criminal justice system, providing a visceral account of the protagonist’s carceral experience. We feel his eye twitching in response to the camera that takes his mug shot, as well as all the physical and psychic tolls of living in a cell as the clock ticks toward his execution, as his appeals for retrial are denied. He is forced into a straitjacket and a padded observational cell; his weight is routinely monitored to ensure a successful hanging.

Mohamed manages such tender detail even while zooming out on the British prison and court systems more broadly. Mahmood, who is illiterate and speaks only limited English, is doomed to an outcome that he cannot foresee or understand, even as his captors and his own attorney reassure him of the fairness of the British judicial system. The novelist pulls facts from the actual trial and its coverage, such as when Mattan’s defense counsel described him as “this half-child of nature, a semicivilized savage”; and from there she imagines a spiritual and ethical journey for the condemned man — one not found in the archives. Before he dies, Mahmood imagines saying to the queen: “If only I could set fire to all your walls … I would burn this prison down and let everyone go free, whatever their crime, no one should steal their freedom. Somalis have got the right idea, you wrong someone and you’re forced to look over your shoulder for the rest of your life unless you make amends. You deal with each other face to face. Only cowards live by prisons and cold hangings.” His statement is a cleareyed rationale for the current movement in the West to abolish prisons.

The novel’s epilogue elucidates the far-reaching ramifications of Mattan’s execution: It drove his widow and children deeper into poverty and isolation, exacerbated anti-Black racism not just in Cardiff, but across Britain. Mattan may have been exonerated in 1998, his body exhumed from the prison grounds and moved to a private cemetery; but the toll on his family, and community, was irrevocable.

Nicole R. Fleetwood is a professor of media, culture and communication at N.Y.U., and the author, most recently, of “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”

By Nadifa Mohamed
304 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.