Nicholas Taylor-Collins in front of a bookshelf

Nicholas Taylor-Collins

Literary researcher | Creative reader

‘The Outsider’ redux: Nadifa Mohamed’s ‘The Fortune Men

Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men (Viking, 2021) won the Wales Book of the Year in 2022. It is a fictional retelling of the tragic miscarriage of justice of Somali Mahmood Mattan in 1950s Cardiff. In the book, Mattan is executed for the murder of British Jew Violet Volacki, a crime he strenuously denied. While the names are changed, and the author uses poetic licence to fill in some of the details of the characters’ lives, its story of tragedy rings true.

Little publicity greeted the announcement of Mohamed’s prize win last July (the BBC Radio Wales Arts programme is no longer available), and the written announcements carried no substantial detail. What we do learn is that it tells a story of ‘oppression’, ‘multicultural[ism]’, and regales its reader with a history of Cardiff and its docklands.

As I read The Fortune Men, I couldn’t shake an intertextual memory of another book I first read nearly twenty years ago. In Albert Camus’s magisterial The Outsider (1942; French L’étranger), Camus tells a story of Meursault who learns on the first page that ‘My mother died today’.[1] This seems like a tragic beginning, but Meursault refuses to rise to the occasion, donning an air of studied neutrality throughout. He is an anti-Hamlet,[2] for whom mourning by-passes that which he has within.

Meursault, curiously and inexplicably, kills an Arab man at the beach. Even this event, at the end of part one, emerges surprisingly in its anticlimactic shock. ‘The burning sun struck my cheeks’ (Camus, p. 53). Meursault sees an Arab. He shoots him.

This famous moment is not, however, the intertextual connection I’m interested in exploring. Rather it’s the time that The Fortune Men‘s protagonist, Mahmood Mattan, and The Outsider‘s hero, Meursault, spend in prison awaiting their punishment. Subtle nods in Mohamed’s text nod to a connection—’The sky is not on fire but the sun is shining as it has done many other days'[3]—and so do the respective visits of religious leaders to the two convicts.

In The Fortune Men, Mattan is visited by an imam, Sheikh Al-Hakimi who has ‘”been called to offer you spiritual comfort”‘ (p. 342). Part of that spirituality turns to the crime itself, with Al-Hakimi asking Mattan outright whether he is guilty:

‘So, you admit it?’ he says, shaking his head.

‘Admit what? That I drank, gambled, stole, wasted time on women? Yes.’

‘No, the crime that keeps you here?’

‘No, I cannot admit what I have not done.’

‘You cannot ask forgiveness for what you have not confessed to, either.’

Mahmood places his left hand over his heart and holds his right hand up, the index finger pointing to heaven. ‘As Allah is my witness, I did not kill that woman, my blood and her blood are both spilt in innocence.’

Nadifa Mohamed, The Fortune Men, pp. 342–3

There is special consolation in confession (another link to Shakespeare’s Hamlet perhaps), and Al-Hakimi is focused on making sure that Mattan has confessed, should he need to.

In this instance, Mattan is innocent and has no need of confessing for this crime. But, for Camus’s Meursault, the positions are reversed: he is undeniably guilty but refuses the chaplain entry three times in a nod to the story of Jesus’s resurrection (Camus, p. 98). When the chaplain finally gains entry, Meursault explains that he refused him before because he ‘didn’t believe in God’ (Camus, p. 105).

This leads to the chaplain’s own despair before Meursault announces that he abides by the justice of man who had condemned him to death. ‘I was guilty,’ says Meursault, ‘I was paying for it, no one could ask any more of me.’ (Camus, p. 107) This sense of balanced justice anticipates the line from Mattan, quoted above, when he claims that the blood of the two victims (murder victim and victim of the miscarriage of justice) will be spilt together.

Justice is a balancing act, and these two counterbalance one another in their versions of criminal acceptance.

It’s even worth examining the protagonists’ respective final moments. For Meursault, his execution provides a thrill as he hopes that ‘there would be many, many spectators on the day of my execution and that they would greet me with cries of hatred’ (Camus, p. 111). This is offset by Mattan’s angered rejection of his execution at the last. He cries, ‘”You WRONG!”‘ (Mohamed, p. 365) before the final moment comes quickly:

It is around his neck. They pull him back to his feet.

Then comes the roar of the world giving way beneath him.

Mohamed, The Fortune Men, p. 365

The shared reference to the audible—cries of hatred versus the roar of the world—demonstrate the sensible world that these characters co-inhabit. This suggests that these books, in spite of their major differences, nonetheless resort to the pared back world of prison living in which even sounds become indiscriminate.

We could also look at the respective engagements of the characters’ lawyers in the run up to their trials; the time spent alone in prison; and even the nature of being an outsider in the community in which they live. These are all aspects shared by The Outsider and The Fortune Men.

But what does this sense of intertextuality serve to our reading of The Fortune Men? In my mind, it helps me make sense of postcolonial gestures made in Mohamed’s novel, bringing us back to Camus’s own Algerian heritage and the inexplicable hatred Meursault has for the Arab while living in Algeria in The Outsider.

Further, in the sense of iniquitous inhospitality of society—either Meursault’s sense of estrangement or in Mattan’s racist exclusion in Cardiff—we see the mid-century European city as built on a bedrock of racism that seeks to divide rather than offer a home to all and sundry.

Finally, the meditations on loneliness while the protagonists await their fate allow readers to think about the travesty that is capital punishment, and the way that death can corrupt the final moments of life.

[1] Albert Camus, The Outsider, trans. Sandra Smith (London: Penguin, 2013).

[2] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.2.85.

[3] Nadifa Mohamed, The Fortune Men (London: Viking, 2021), p. 361.