Even if you have never heard of Mahmood Mattan, his story is familiar to you. There is something compelling about an innocent man condemned to death, and there have been many iterations of the theme. In this case, Mattan became the last man ever hanged in Cardiff on 3 September 1952, only six months after the death of Lily Volpert, the woman he was accused of murdering. The evidence against Mattan was entirely circumstantial. He was convicted on the testimony of an unreliable witness, Harold Cover, who said he saw Mattan outside Volpert’s shop on the night of the murder. Cover was later sentenced to life imprisonment, himself, for attempting to kill his own daughter in the same manner that Volpert was murdered – a slash across the throat with a razor. It would be determined later that an entirely different man, Tahir Gass (also later to be sent to prison for murder), had been seen by Harold Cover outside Volpert’s shop that night. Meanwhile, another Somali sailor, Dahir Awalah, had already confessed to being the man the police were looking for before fleeing to Brazil. In 1998, the Court of Appeal called the case against Mattan “seriously flawed”, overturned the conviction and awarded the family compensation.
For those who like their stories revealed in the reading, all this may seem like a big spoiler. But Mattan’s story is public record and the publisher reveals most of the key elements of the story in the cover blurb. The value of a book like The Fortune Men isn’t to reveal a surprising ending – Mattan’s eventual end seems as inevitable as a Greek tragedy – but to make its readers empathise with the plight of another human being, and in doing so, expose racist tenets through which our systems are degraded. To this end Nadifa Mohamed’s Mattan is an imagined creation, but one based on extensive research into the case, drawing upon Mattan’s own words from the archives, where possible, to give him a voice in this novel.
The Fortune Men is a good novel, even if it is not perfect. My main issue with the book arises with Mohamed’s justifiable desire to humanise Lily Volpert (renamed Violet Volacki in the novel) and her family, and to establish a basis of facts from the beginning. Violet’s story is important, and the dramatic impact of her death upon her sisters, Maggie and Diana, along with her young niece, Grace, is skilfully realised. As Jewish shopkeepers, their story has commonalities with Mahmood Mattan’s, a Somali sailor living in Tiger Bay, Cardiff. Both the family and Mattan suffer racial prejudice and struggle to make a living. Violet is still haunted by the breaking of a window in retaliation for the hanging of British soldiers in Palestine, an act that inevitably recalls Kristallnacht in Germany. For Mattan, it is the casual racism of the workplace, of racist taunts and poorer pay, and objections to his marrying a white woman, Laura Williams, which usually defines his reality. Against this, there is a sense that Diana’s story arc is not as compelling nor troubling as Mattan’s, once her sister is dead. It has no dramatic push after that point, and her story devolves into a backward-looking account of the Blitz on London. Violet’s murder is horrific and sad, but it’s randomness does not command the same attention or raise the same questions about state violence in the garb of justice, or the potential tenets of racism, or of self-interest, that motivate some witnesses in Mattan’s case.
By contrast, Mattan’s backstory is set in British Somaliland, where his father comes into conflict with a Haji, a pilgrim commanding moral authority in the community, who opposes British rule. Mahmood’s father, appointed as adjudicate on religious cases by the Governor, has little option but to support British authority against the resistance the Haji encourages. Mattan’s early backstory foreshadows his later internal conflict: the question of the authority of British justice imposed upon the religious Somalis in British Somaliland. This is an authority in which Mattan believes implicitly, even when he is arrested. He is naïve and too trusting. He is a petty thief but he knows he is no murderer, and so he trusts in the justice system which has served him in the past when charged with minor crimes. Mattan’s understanding of his predicament is shaped by American cinema – he imagines his case will be like an American movie, with a reprieve at the final moments and a joyous ending – and his faith in God.
The novel begins with the death of King George VI and the anticipated reign of Elizabeth. India had gained its independence in 1947, but countries like British Somaliland were still yoked to the British crown, as it would continue to be for another 8 years. The 1950s are arguably the last gasp of the British Empire; certainly by 1956 with the Suez Crisis. But in the late 1940s men like Mahmood Mattan immigrated to England for the chance of a new life, in the belief that the British system meant something. But Mattan’s ideals are shown to be naïve. Instead of justice, Mattan finds injustice. Instead of a benevolent system, he perceives a system set against men of colour, with a queen at its head whose life is so fundamentally different to his own, that she could never conceive of his mind, even if she knew he existed:
You live your life and I live mine, there is nothing to bring us together. You rich, I’m poor, you white, I’m black, you Christian, I’m Muslim, you English, I’m Somali, you’re loved, I’m despised. Fate is wrong to tie us up together…
Mattan’s judgement against the queen – “What kind of woman gets pleasure from keeping her men cooped up like chickens or goats?” – is a striking shift from his initial belief in the English system. Berlin, a Somali who Mattan meets before leaving Somaliland, recalls being taken to Germany as part of a carnival in which he was exhibited alongside elephants and zebras. And there is a steady stream of animalistic epithets directed at Mattan throughout the novel, too. So Mattan’s story criticises racism as dehumanising, but by extension, it is an implicit criticism of colonialism itself.
It’s worth considering the title of the book before ending. It’s a curious title before you think about the various meanings of “fortune”. Violet’s killer takes £100 from the till and this money is confused with money Mattan wins at the races the next day. It’s a lot of money in 1952 but hardly a fortune. There is also the fortune teller that Mattan’s wife, Laura, consults, hoping for good news as her husband waits for some kind of reprieve. And there is the ‘fortune’ that ‘men’ (to use the book’s title) seek, when they leave their old country for a new one: for a new life and hope. But there is also the old-fashioned meaning of the word, familiar to those who study Shakespeare: Lady Fortune, who tips the fate of all with glorious indifference. And there is the fortune which is our fate, or the outcome of our lives if you like, which ties the stories of one individual to another in time. Mattan’s fate is tied to that of Violet’s, since they are both victims of the one crime. And his fate is also tied, now, to the judicial history of England, too.
Despite its minor weaknesses in the early parts of this novel, The Fortune Men is a sophisticated addition to death row stories, as well as a powerful indictment against racism and colonial practices.
...know that they will bury me here, keep these bones like loot. No Muslim to wash me, no prayers, no one to rest my left cheek to the soil.