The Orchard of Lost Souls in the AroS Museum

Jama Musse Jama, co-founder and organizer of the annual Hargeysa International Book Fair writes about his intertextual encounter between the characters of Nadifa Mohamed’s latest novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, and the subjects of 19th century danish painter Kay Christensen

Few writers can take your breath away or capture your imagination, but Nadifa Mohamed is one of them. I had been reading her second novel, and with only a few pages to go, I searched for a suitable combination of art, place and atmosphere to finish it off and to place my soul amongst the lost souls described in the novel. In Aarhus, Denmark, I read the last five pages of  The Orchard of Lost Souls, then I ascended the steep stairs leading up to the huge opening gate of the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum. In the gallery there was a temporary exhibition about Kay Christensen, a Danish artist who lived in different Northern European countries between 1899-1981, and who is described as an everlasting fairytale storyteller.

In Danish art, Kay Christensen remained a solitary man, who possessed a sublime skill for capturing the expressiveness and material beauty of color. Using thick oil paint, applied strokes and coarse contour lines, he experimented using this expressive style. What immediately becomes visible from his paintings, however, is the fairy-tale story teller that he was. Women, occasionally accompanied by a child , are recurring motifs in his artwork. I recalled his illustrated literary work “The tale of everlasting joy and the four winds” written in 1948 and recently made into a film.

As I approached the first floor of the giant cube-shaped reddish-brown building, I was captured by the “The Story of a Mother”, a piece situated at the left side of the first room: a middle sized oil on canvas painting by Kay Christensen in 1948-51. The first floor of the museum is called “The 9 Room Space” and is reserved for temporary exhibitions. This space is also known as the “hell of the museum” as noted in one of the brochures detailing the museum’s architecture.  My thoughts turned immediately to Filsan and Kawsar, two women from Mohamed’s novel, who with Deqa, the third woman and the youngest protagonist of the story, make the ‘trio of wonders’. These three women, whose lives are cast between hell and heaven, are the main characters of the novel. Each has lost and is in search for something, be it emotional and physical. Three women, whose overlapping life stories offer an insight into the fall of the Somali Republic. For a moment I observed the painting, starring at its bold colors, and as I experienced a multiplicity of conflicting thoughts, I noticed similarities between the artwork, “The Story of a Mother”,  and the narrative of the book. I chose to sit down in front of this magnificent piece to finish the rest of Nadifa Mohamed’s story.

The Orchard of Lost Souls is set in Hargeysa. It is 1988 and a whole nation is being dragged into hell. Nadifa Mohamed tells the story of three women, Kawsar who is in her late fifties, Filsan in her late twenties and the 9 year old Deqa. The book masterfully captures collective memories of hardship and joy. From time to time, the author abandons her elegant and beautiful prose, to capture a more somber melody that represents the fear experienced by many of the citizens of Hargeysa at the time. The increasing rhythm makes a contour for the irrefutable pain retold by the storyteller, in the same way bold colors delineate the shape of Christensen’s painting –  horror fairytale and dreamlike appearances, like fantasies of man’s inability to respect another human being.

In “The Story of a Mother” the artist uses three main colors: deep red for the flames emanating from hell, and green for the ground that reminds us of heaven, and the female body with her white nightdress, lying in between hell and heaven, powerless to react. Deep in these paintings, my imagination brings me back to the touching conversation between Filsan and the young innocent Deqa. When Filsan presents herself to Deqa, she does so to show her gratitude. Little Deqa, who has just spared Filsan’s life, by hiding her from the soldiers who are running after her like a pack of predators close to catching the unfortunate prey of the day. Filsan  confesses to Deqa that she was “one of them before”, and that now as “one of you”, human beings are often divided into two groups: the bad and the good.

It’s the personification of hell and heaven. The shift between the two is a critical moment of a confession and conversion.

Mohamed chooses to relay her story through the voice of the voiceless witness-victim of a male-dominated society, which makes the narration more powerful. Through the eyes of three women of three different generations we observe as the world falls apart.  Nadifa Mohamed’s characters resemble terrified fairy-tale characters placed in a borderline between a dream and a nightmare, and the reality of what was happening in Hargeysa at the time. Words, carefully selected to compose sublime concise sentences, capture images of what happened in the city throughout that period.

The life of these three women is a common journey, rich in experience and love, but also a life devastated by sorrow, unrest and pain. As in a fairy-tale, the life of these women spans both beauty and dread; more dread than beauty; more dark than light in 1988 Hargeysa. Standing in front of “The little Red Fire Engine”,  a large oil on canvas painting in the Aarhus museum, I sense the pain and love evoked by the novel, as I catch a glimpse of these emotions through the eyes of the women shown in the paintings.

In Aarhus I felt a strong desire to give the words of Nadifa Mohamed’s protagonists to the women who recurringly featured in Kay Christensen’s paintings;  to give them souls. I wanted to see if they could tell me more, to express the misery they had experienced through their invisible gestures and unheard voices, to hear semiconsciously the deafening screams of Deqa, Filsan and Kawsar.

I walked quickly through the rest of the museum, almost five additional floors. I arrived on the final floor, and the link between hell and heaven was also reflected in the architecture of ARoS, which is based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Written in the early 14th century, it describes its male protagonist’s journey through the realms of the dead. The realisation of the roof project “Your rainbow panorama” of the ARoS museum “completes,” according to the Olafur Eliasson (the architect who realised the project), “the link between hell and heaven.” Hell is embodied by the museum’s conceptual exhibition space: ‘The 9 Rooms’ on its lowest floor, which is connected to the panoramic paradise on the  top floor of the ARoS. I longed to meet Deeqa, Filsan and Kawsar there on the 7th floor of the ARoS in the rainbow panorama.

Few books caress the strings of the soul, touch you gently, and play the violin that is in you, to awaken your consciousness; The Orchard of Lost Souls  had that effect on me.

The Orchard of Lost Souls | Nadifa Mohamed, Simon & Schuster UK |  352 pages | Hardback | ISBN 9781471115288