Abuldrazak Gurnah


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 5, 2005)

"There is, as you can see, an I in this story, but it is not a story about me. It is one about all of us, about Farida and Amin and our parents, and about Jamila. It is about how one story contains many and how they belong not to us but are part of the random currents of our time, and about how stories capture us and entangle us for all time."

Desertion by Abulrazak Gurnah

When Martin Pearce, an Englishman nearly dead from thirst, stumbles out of the desert at dawn and is found by Hassanali, a shopseller who is opening the local mosque in a village south of Mombasa, he sets in motion a series of events and themes which echo throughout the novel. It is 1899, and Pearce, who has left a massive expedition of white hunters, has been robbed and abandoned by the guides who were to take him to a village. After traveling on foot for four days, Pearce appears to Hassanali like "a ghoul who would devour him." Hassanali helps him, however, believing that "This [man] was a burden [God] had…chosen for him, perhaps to try him or punish him or test him, according to a wisdom which was not yet apparent to him." He, his wife Malika, and his sister Rehana care for him until a local British official brings him back to "civilization."

When Pearce returns to thank Hassanali, he becomes enamored of Rehana, whose Indian husband has abandoned her and returned to India. Pearce, who has been working in Egypt, speaks some Arabic and enjoys and respects other cultures, and his eventual affair with Rehana becomes a scandal in both the British and the Indian/Muslim communities. Unexpectedly, as this story draws to a close, the third person narrative shifts to an unknown, first person speaker, who refers to his brother Amin, Amin's lover Jamila, and his own relationship with Grace, all completely unexplained references.

Part II, which takes place fifty years later, concerns a family on Zanzibar, a small island under British rule, just across the channel from Mombasa, and now part of Tanzania. Two brothers, Amin and Rashid, and their sister Farida, become the focus of the action, and the reader quickly realizes that it is Rashid who has recorded Part I, though his connection with the story of Pearce and Rehana remains unknown. Amin's story of his love for Jamila, which soon unfolds, resembles that of Pearce and Rehana, in that both loves involve cultural and religious taboos, and raise questions about the ability of love to survive such difficulties.

In Part III, about fifteen years after that, Amin is still in Zanzibar, where his parents also live, and Rashid, the student of the family, has left for studies in England. While he is away, the British grant Zanzibar independence, but a revolution ousts the constitutional monarchy of the Sultan, and the Tanzanians take over. The Zanzibaris resent their second class status, their poverty, and their exploitation, which they see as worse than what they endured under the British, and the enduing traumas and bloodshed of this period, mostly in the 1970s, leave Rashid unable to return home. Because of censorship, Amin must be careful what he relates in his letters as the two brothers try to communicate and bring their lives up to date.

"A Continuation," a five-page epilogue, draws together the stories of Pearce and Rehana, Amin and Jamila, and resolves questions involving Rashid and Grace.

Gurnah is a wonderful prose stylist, writing in a smooth and descriptive narrative style in which the sentences almost sing. Conjuring the moods and images of different times and places, he depicts ordinary people, engaging in the events of their daily lives and reacting to them. Though Gurnah focuses to some extent on the effects of colonialism on his characters, such as Hassanali, Rehana, Amin, Rashid, and Jamila, he concentrates primarily on telling domestic stories of family, courtship, love, and relationships, enabling the reader to experience the lives of these people in all their small details and customs.

Throughout the novel runs the theme of change, a type of desertion, and Gurnah himself illustrates this, ironically. The characters we meet in Part I are deserted completely in Parts II and III, and never mentioned again until the five-page epilogue. Rashid, the primary first-person narrator of Parts II and III, is deserted by the author near the end of Part III, when the point of view shifts suddenly to that of Amin, who has been left behind in Zanzibar and who becomes the new narrator. Both Rashid and Amin have written about their memories, however, connecting their need remember with the general theme of desertion and abandonment, and providing some thematic unity to stories that span seventy-five years and four generations of people.

Though the three parts, individually, are fascinating, especially in their views of cultural traditions, displacements, and the characters' relationships with the governments under which they must live, the novel, overall, feels more like three separate stories than a continuous whole. The epilogue at the end, which connects the story of Pearce and Rehana to that of Rashid and Amin, is a surprise which depends on coincidence, and it feels artificial. Gurnah develops vivid and memorable images of life, however, and further develops the themes of desertion and displacement, which are always a factor in his novels. The stories, which are intriguing, might have been more effective as three separate novellas, rather than as one novel, plus epilogue.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews
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"By the Sea"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 20, 2005)
(Originally published with DesiJournal.com)

By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah

I cannot imagine why this thoughtful and beautifully constructed novel by an author of immense talent is so little known and so little praised. It's a very strong book, filled with sensual images, subtle feelings, vibrant scenes, carefully plotted intrigue, and clear messages. Its scenes of family life and strife in Zanzibar, contrasted with the "civilized," bureaucratic, and officious behavior of the British at home and abroad, establish strong contrasts and illuminate the themes.

The book begins as a leisurely portrait of two lonely immigrants to England from Zanzibar, one of them a distinguished young professor and the other a 65-year-old asylum seeker who has just arrived, pretending he understands no English. As the points of view shift back and forth between the two men in succeeding sections of the novel, we come to know each man well--his life, his aspirations in Zanzibar, his extended family, the family's business connections there, and ultimately, the how and why of each man's emigration to England. Coming from two different generations, each man has a different view of his former country, the older man having spent most of his life there, escaping to England when all other hope is gone, and the younger having left as a young student, but still longing for the connections he left behind.

Powerful ironies drive the action. Each man knows who the other is, or was, in Zanzibar, and each believes that the other's family has brought about his own family's downfall there. As the two men tentatively explore the past and the old man reveals information the young man could never have known, the pace quickens until the past and the present merge and each of the men discovers hidden truths and new strengths. This is passionate book of clear vision, a book which recognizes harsh truths and still remains compassionate.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 2 reviews
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(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 20, 2005)

Paradise by Abuldrazak Gurnah

A finalist in 1994 for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award, Paradise hides major themes and ideas within the seemingly simple story of Yusuf, a twelve-year-old boy in rural East Africa whose father sells him to a trader to settle a debt. East Africa is in turmoil--on the verge of World War I and the fighting which eventually develops between the Germans in Tanzania and the British in Kenya. Cities are growing, populations are moving, merchants are trading and selling, and colonialists from many countries are vying for influence.

When Yusuf is sold to his "uncle" Aziz, he leaves his remote rural village in what is now Tanzania and joins a trading caravan, traveling to the highlands and eventually on an ill-fated trading safari to the remote interior, discovering whole new worlds as he goes. In eight years of travel, he "progresses" from the countryside to a coastal city, from simple subsistence to the complexities of urban, mercantile life, and from his childish pleasure with a shiny coin to adult love.

As a young child/adolescent, Yusuf is an obvious symbol of Tanzania itself at this early stage in its history. Just as Yusuf must come of age, so also must the country as the various groups contending for influence make choices about how much they will accept, reject, or adapt to outside influences. As Yusuf comes into contact with tribal chieftains, Muslim traders, Indian shopkeepers, and German empire builders, the reader observes the impact of all of these groups both within Yusuf and within the loose, artificial borders of Tanzania.

Creating vivid images primarily through his selection of the perfect detail, Gurnah uses simple, poetic language to tell a delightful story loaded with important social and political observations, conveying clearly and objectively the historical background of the country in which the author was born. Dialogue is often filled with humor, and Yusuf becomes a real person, not a cardboard symbol. A novel which begins as a beautifully realized coming-of age story develops into a story of high adventure, social and political realism, and eventually love.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)



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About the Author:

Abulrazak GurnahAbdulrazak Gurnah was born in 1948 on the island of Zanzibar off the coast of East Africa. He came to Britain as a student in 1968. In 1980-82 he taught at the University of Kano, Nigeria and in 1982 received his Ph.D. from the University of Kent, Canterbury, where he has been teaching English literature since 1985. He is also associate editor of the journal Wasafiri.

His fourth novel Paradise was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and Whitbread Award. And By the Sea, was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist.

Abdulrazak Gurnah lives in Brighton, East Sussex.

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