“Let the world become a brotherhood before it becomes a neighborhood,” is a 20th century expression that implores us to improve the quality of our relationships before technology increases their number and complexity. The bad news is that it’s too late for this sentiment. The world is connected and interdependent, yet we know little about our neighbors, little about that interconnection, and perhaps disturbingly little about ourselves on top of it all. Into this whirling backdrop steps global journalist Imran Garda, best known as a television host on Al Jazeera English, with The Thunder That Roars, a breathtakingly strong debut novel about the self-discovery and strained relationships of human beings in an era that defies understanding.
The central character of the story is Yusuf Carrim, a South African journalist of Indian Muslim extraction who is a precocious rising star in the world of global journalism, having made a major reputation for his contributions to coverage of the Arab Spring. (Any comparisons to Garda, a young journalist of Indian Muslim extraction from Johannesburg, are probably not coincidental.) Carrim splits his time between coverage of global events in the Middle East and gritting his teeth through shallow house parties in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His success is not enough to salve a growing emptiness draining him from an unknown source. When he receives word from home that Sam, his family’s long-time gardener, has disappeared, Yusuf instantly boards a plane to South Africa to express concern, seek atonement, or perhaps force a reckoning.
Yusuf returns to his family’s home to find a tense, roiling discontent in the wake of Sam’s disappearance. His step-mother and father express are opinionated and appear generally devoid of compassion. Sam’s wife and children are stoic, fearing the worst. Only Yusuf’s favorite university professor explains the situation in its gravity – that Sam may have gone to be a gunman during the Libyan uprising. Yusuf takes it upon himself to apply his ability to investigate stories as a measure of devotion to his family friend, or, tacitly, as a way to use his worldly success as a journalist to heal divisions in his family he scarcely understands. He departs on an adventure that will take him on a dangerous path from Zimbabwe to North Africa to the dungeons of Europe’s illegal immigration centers.
What is in principle supposed to be a search for Sam the gardener becomes, through a series of increasingly dangerous events, an exploration of the darkest sides of Yusuf’s own personality. Though the near-death experiences and dank prison cells hold the most obvious peril, what threatens to break the young man is a series of revelations of vital details about his life that have been complete untruths. By the end of the story, the international media has been brought in to the adventure, using its camcorders and blog posts to paint a thin veneer of rational narrative on a journey that offers little but mystery, confusion and pain for Yusuf and the rest of his family.
While the descriptions of darkness and lack of a happy ending sound for depressing reading, the novel is challenging and satisfying from cover to cover. Garda’s author photo looks about twenty years short of the age normally associated with this much depth of insight into cultures, political events, and the human condition. His prose is at once richly detailed and economical. He has a sharp eye for the contradictions of globalization: the women with $10,000 handbags in “developing” economies; international journalists whose greatest fascination is in the mirror; popular revolutions that seem to end back up at the same old economic inequality and ethnic social hierarchies with only superficial changes. None of Garda’s characters are caricatures or plot devices to advance Yusuf’s odyssey, but seem to exhibit the same multi-layered and contradictory motivations of the world they inhabit.
His treatment of Islam is especially remarkable, exploring how many people throughout Africa relate to the religion and its spirituality. It may be the only writing I have experienced since The Yacoubian Building that depicts Muslims who are at turns lapsed, moderate or devout, and which also deals frankly with the role of fundamentalism and terrorism. Once again, there is nothing shallow or caricatural about Garda’s writing.
The story comes to a finish as Yusuf tracks Sam from the Cape of Good Hope to Sicily and back. There is no victory parade. Everybody seems to go on as before, altered but not transformed. Just as in real life, you expect that adventures will conclude through a defined ending, happy or not. But instead, the world continues inexorably. How you interpret it, what you learn and what you do differently is up to the individual.
Imran Garda’s first novel offers much to the reader. If you are from any one of Africa’s nations, you might revel in the depiction of the continent and its people free from red sunsets, tribal drums and animal reserves. If you enjoy travel and hunger for new insights about the world, Garda’s perceptive descriptions will give you a three-dimensional view on nations and people which normally only appear to Westerners as sensational jpegs. Otherwise, this is simply excellent, character-driven fiction provided on an original backdrop. One can only imagine what Garda will offer us next.