Sweet and Sour Milk

( 2 )


Winner of the 1980 English-Speaking Union Literary Award

The first novel in Farah's universally acclaimed Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship trilogy, Sweet and Sour Milk chronicles one man's search for the reasons behind his twin brother's violent death during the 1970s. The atmosphere of political tyranny and repression reduces our hero's quest to a passive and fatalistic level; his search for reasons and answers ultimately becomes a search for meaning. The ...

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Winner of the 1980 English-Speaking Union Literary Award

The first novel in Farah's universally acclaimed Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship trilogy, Sweet and Sour Milk chronicles one man's search for the reasons behind his twin brother's violent death during the 1970s. The atmosphere of political tyranny and repression reduces our hero's quest to a passive and fatalistic level; his search for reasons and answers ultimately becomes a search for meaning. The often detective-story-like narrative of this novel thus moves on a primarily interior plane as "Farah takes us deep into territory he has charted and mapped and made uniquely his own" (Chinua Achebe).

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Farah offers social, political and religious commentary on his native Somalia in these three novels; the first, Sweet and Sour Milk , is the elegantly crafted tale of a man's investigation of his revolutionary twin's mysterious death. (May)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555971595
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 8/22/2006
  • Series: African Writers Series
  • Edition description: Reprint Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 903,708
  • Product dimensions: 5.97 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Nuruddin Farah was born in 1945 in Baidoa, in what is now the Republic of Somalia. His Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship trilogy consists of the novels Sweet and Sour Milk, Sardines, and Close Sesame. His other books include From a Crooked Rib, A Naked Needle, and Maps. In 1991, he received the Swedish Tucholsky Literary Award, given to literary exiles, and he was the recipient of the German DAAD fellowship in 1990.

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First Chapter

Sweet and Sour Milk

By Nuruddin Farah

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 1992 Nuruddin Farah
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55597-159-8


Like a baby with a meatless bone in his mouth, a bone given him by his mother to suck while she is in the kitchen minding the pot which has now begun to sing....

There was something very disturbing about his features today, there was something which suggested an untidiness of a sort-rather like a cotton dress washed in salty water and worn until it reeks of human sweat. There was something very vulnerable about his looks, something quite restless. He breathed billows his lungs' size. His tongue, swollen and red, rolled in the discharge of pain. Soyaan held his mother's hand, held it lovingly and tightly, and he pressed it.

"Drink this," she said. "It will do you a lot of good."

A beetle entered, and cut the heat-waves of the room. The beetle headed upwards, it dog-fought with another there, returned and, for a while, circled just a few inches away from Soyaan's eyes. He closed and opened them. This pained his eyes. And the beetle was gone.

"Please drink it up."

But he wouldn't drink the medicinal concoction his mother held in front of his unseeing eyes. Nor would he give a plausible explanation of why he had come home with a stomach disorder. What had he eaten? With whom had he been? What poisonous food had he been given? He had feared that his mother's persistent queries would make a rent in his defensive armour, he had feared that his sister's appeal would make a small tear or two in his cloak of privacy. No fear of that now. For he had become inarticulate with the groans of pain. He need not offer answers to their questions. "Soyaan, my son," his mother had said. Soyaan: healthy as the antimony of her kohled vision. Never had she known him to fall ill. Never had she known him unwell for long. Unlike Loyaan, his twin brother, unlike his sister Ladan, unlike them both, Soyaan had been a catapult of order; all three were quite unlike their father Keynaan, who was the epitome of hypochondria. But what had Soyaan eaten? What unearthly potions had he taken? What had he come into contact with, whom? Why had he vomited a colourful mixture of vegetables, meat and spaghetti? His skin, for one thing, had turned unpleasantly pale, almost anaemic. His head had become unduly heavy for the rest of his body: to lift it from the pillow, he needed to be helped.

"With your mother's blessing ...," she said.

He shook his head. No. He wouldn't take it.


She held a straw fan in her hand. With it, she chased away the flies. With it she also dispersed the heat. As she fanned, some of the flies fled, some stirred but remained where they had been, while those which she had struck landed on the floor. They made a pattern there, a pattern ugly and unhealthy.

He wondered if the room could be sprayed. All these flies, mosquitoes. Where there were flies, there were health hazards, inconveniences.

He motioned to her to help him lift his head off the pillow. She put one of her arms under his head and with her other supported the weight of his body-frail and yet heavy-boned. She suffered the painful effort of watching him place a pillow conveniently under his back. She stood back and eased her features into a relaxed smile when she saw him accomplish, with maintained grace, the difficult task of remaining in a propped-up position. Then she nodded an acknowledgment when he mumbled a word of gratitude.

She sighed as she took her seat again. She felt a pain in her back, a pain which reminded her of childbearing and other complications. But she took refuge in the menopausal safety of her age. Thank the Lord: three childbirths and a near-fatal fourth; and a terror for a husband. She remembered that Soyaan had vomited all she had forced down his throat. A friend of his, a Dr Ahmed-Wellie, had come and provided another long list of prescriptive remedies. Qumman picked up the straw fan again. She worked herself into a mood of fury, she fanned and she fanned. Abruptly she stopped to inquire if Soyaan would take at least a few spoonfuls of the yogurt he had originally requested.

"No, thank you."

"What is wrong with it?" She looked strangely at the bowl in her hand. She brought it nearer her nose and smelt it. Maybe to sense if he, too, had scented the dash of herbs the traditionalist savant had administered to the yogurt.

Her tone of voice became desperate: "You haven't had anything since yesterday."

That wasn't quite true and she knew it. He had taken a little salted yogurt. When he couldn't stand the taste, he had asked for it to be sugared. But then he still didn't want any of it.

"Loyaan will be here any time now," she told him.

This alerted his tired senses, though his reaction to the news about his twin brother's arrival wasn't instantaneous. First he smiled his pleasure. A little later the lines of his face were cast in a mould of cheer. They hadn't met for several months.

"He should be here any time now."

As Soyaan breathed, his nostrils issued a whistle. His mother helped herself to the yogurt. The family's economy couldn't afford the slightest waste. The house in which they were had only just been paid for. My precious son, she said to herself, we cannot afford to lose you.

"Before I go, is there anything you specially want me to get for you?" she asked as she touched him, feeling his temperature.


Her hand pressed his stomach which in reaction made a noise something like a belch. He knitted his brow as though from a fresh start of pain. She smoothed his wrinkles with her open palm.

"All these when you are only twenty-nine!" she commented.

"Please." He pointed at a table by the door. His voice was feeble, his stare pale and unfocused.

On the table to which he pointed there lay, as though on display, an assortment of bottles of various groupings and dimensions. But his mother shook her head determinedly. No, she wouldn't get them for him. No. She wouldn't pass the bottles to him. Not before he promised her something. What? He knew that she had little faith in the miracles of modern medicines. He knew that she would exhaust what little faith she had in them long before the curded taste of malaria tablets melted flat out on the tongue which had drenched them. Qumman made no secret of this. She would argue with sustained passion that she favoured traditional medicines; in the event that they didn't work, then Allah's providential cures. Her sons and daughters found it inexplicably curious that she nevertheless tolerated injections when it really came to making the ultimate choice.

"You don't need any of these," she said.

She went to the table and stood there for a while. She took two of the bottles, one in each hand, and studied them. She held them in front of her and stared at them. Knowing she couldn't read the instructions on the bottles, Soyaan wondered what it was that made her look at them in that strange, bewitched manner.

"If only you heard yourself. Of course, you weren't lucid, and your gaze was fixed on the unclear mist of the mad. Your temperature was exceptionally high. The inconsistencies you speak in your sleep-the obscenities your disturbed sleep utters. Is it that woman who gave you whatever has upset you so terribly?"

"What woman?"

Qumman's mouth opened but closed after only having softly pronounced the first letter of that woman's name. Her tongue had stumbled on the vowel-formation of the name, but she rose, with dignity, before she tripped over the wire trap of unuttered thoughts.

"Decency, mother-and I should like to quote your own words," said Soyaan, "doesn't hide only in the skirt-folds of a young lady of perfumed modesty, whose movements are inconspicuous, unpretentious, a young lady who is discreet. If you pull the string, once you undo the hem-the nude is too obscene and too commonplace whatever the sex. Decency."

She moved away a little, quiet as dust. Her mind settled with and wouldn't do away with the choice she had made. She would not waver like agitated air between this and that pocket of the wind's pressure. She would stay firm.

"You always lose hold of your own reality," she said. "You are very sick. So I suggest you put your trust in us and we will, in no time, loosen her grip on your soul."

"Come to the point, Mother."

"You're bewitched, my son."

"No, no. I meant, what was it I said in my disturbed, bewitched sleep?"


"Be specific, Mother."

"Ask Ladan. Ask your sister." She held the bottles in front of her as before.

"Please," he appealed, looking at the bottled tablets.

"These haven't done you any good, anyhow."

"Just pass them to me." He looked at his watch. Time he took the hourly prescription Ahmed-Wellie had approved of. He should tell her that medicine takes a long time for its effect to work; but he dared not. "Please."

She set the bottles down on the table again. She walked back towards her chair. The floor stirred under her feet. There was a small breeze in the room now that the wind had pushed the window open.

"How about this," his mother challenged: "if I pass them to you and I let you take them, will you do something for me in return?"

"Let's hear it."

"When the sheikh arrives, will you promise not to make a mock of his efforts or deride mine? The Koran is all we know that cures without complications. We'll forget about the yogurt, as a compromise," she bargained.

No word from Soyaan. There was a light scatter of dust falling on the aluminium roof. Qumman looked up at the ceiling while she waited for his response. He looked up from his Neruda. Against the bottles, he noticed now, there stood the family copy of the Koran.

"Promise," he said.

She went out of the room to tell the sheikh to prepare.

Whereupon Soyaan searched for further clues to life's mysteries as he focused his stare on a gecko which moved, with consummate grace, up and down the uneven crevices of the wall in front of him. The silence helped lift the weight off his thoughts. He slowed down. He let his mind sail away. He spread his sailcloth at a very convenient spot. He lay there-feeling light as a sail, fleeing from all but her, feeling wanted. Do enter if you will. I am spread like water. Come into me but slowly, lovingly....


Excerpted from Sweet and Sour Milk by Nuruddin Farah Copyright © 1992 by Nuruddin Farah. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2005

    the prophet of narrators

    i like nurrudin's novels,sometimes i thing that he is gonna tell me what is inside me, even i admire the meaning of his book names, for me he is my teacher and novelist,i think the most important thing that aothors ran for is to tauch the heart of their readers, that is what he do nurrudin.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2002

    Poetic Critcism

    From the onset of the novel the reader is fascinated with the use of language, especially when you realize that english is not the author's first language and is probably his third. Further into the novel, you're sucked into an underworld of confusion as you explore life in a authoritarian-led country being backed by the USSR in the tense years of the Cold War. Political themes are obvious, but underlying themes of the colonial legacy and the role of women in African societies are uniquely interwoven. This is a smart novel, an intriguing novel that will definitely keep you reading and leave you wanting more. An excellent beginning to a trilogy.

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