By Sankar Ray
Decades after Franz Fanon, perceptive readers’ community the world over will queue at bookstands for books of Zanzibari fiction writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Nobel laureate for literature in 2021. From his debut novel ‘Memory of Departure’ (1987) to Afterlives (2020) one is acquainted with the plight of coastal Muslim communities and their confrontation with European imperialism. They were never abandoned by Muslim empire.
Born in a culturally diversified island in what he called “Western Indian Ocean” with a past history of slave trade and oppression by Portuguese, Indian, Arab, German and British colonial regimes, Gurnah, is unflinchingly committed to critiquing colonialist, militarist and capitalist modernity and taking up cudgels for Swahili transmodernity. He uses Swahili words forcefully.
His Memory of Departure – nostalgic to me having read it in 1990, is a narrative on a failed uprising. The central character, Hassan Omar, is a gifted young protagonist who longs for a disengagement from the social blight of the coast, where the dispossessed have ‘their toes chilled by the dew, their hearts darkened with malice,, the bridge across the little stream that ran into the creek and turned to watch the water sink into the sea’ a little afar ‘thin dark line of the wireless tower’, states Hassan who desperately seeks severance from the vicious cycle wretched life. Forced to migrate to Nigeria to hoping to rid himself of anxiety and insecurity, he ends up haply in a failure. A letter to Salima at the end of the novel slaps the sanguinary realisation.
These east African subalterns in Gurnah’s novels are ignored by subaltern historians. Gurnah thinks culturally, never racially. Gurnah’s East African characters, mostly oppressed Muslim, are pushed aside by the English society, distinguishable also from their non-Muslim, tree-worshiping neighbours. Islam has a role in their lives of his characters reflecting their rootless identity filially unlikely the Talban way of dividing Muslim, the main feature of hypocrisy of ‘Political Islam’. A section of elitist ‘Marxist’ critics too resorts to what Gurnah calls ‘simply prescriptive bullying’, instead of judging how he “dismantles notions of rootedness and harmony that underlie the concept of community.”
Paradise (1994), shortlisted for Booker is about a boy, Yusuf. Exceptionally handsome and a very sensitive observer, he grows into manhood in a provincial town in the East African interior. Son of a poor hotel owner who mortgaged Yusuf to repay his deepening debt to a man whom Yusuf addresses as Uncle Aziz, and accompanies to the coast, where he befriends Khalil, another debt-slave. Yusuf undergoes extensive historical changes with the integrity of the man-child protagonist. But he feels forced to abandon Amina, the woman he loves, to join the German army that he previously despised. His lively debates with Hamid, a Muslim shopkeeper, which Yusuf later works for .He meets Kalasinga, a Sikh mechanic who jokingly quips, ‘In India? I have seen many gardens with waterfalls in India. Is this your Paradise? Is this where the Aga Khan lives?’
Treatment of the refugee experience fits in to Gurnah’s post-colonial constructs with focus on identity and self-image, featuring in Admiring Silence (1996) and By the Sea (2001) –both first-person novels where silence is presented as the refugee’s strategy to shield identity from racism and prejudice – also a means of avoiding a collision between past and present alongside disappointment and disastrous self-deception. Consider By the Sea, where Saleh, an old Zanzibari Muslim and the narrator of the first part, applies for asylum in England with a visa forged in the name of a bitter enemy. When he meets the enemy’s son, Latif, the narrator of second part, who helps Saleh adjust to his new home country. Impassioned quarrels come up and Saleh’s suppressed past in Zanzibar rears up within him. Latif tries to forget everything. But a strange tension creeps in dissolving the fiction’s plotted path and direction, as well as the narrators’ authority and self-perception.
Gurnah’s itinerant characters are located in a hiatus between cultures and continents, between the past and the emerging reality – pushing into a state, too insecure to be resolved. Take his seventh novel, Desertion (2005, a passionate read with a backdrop of vast cultural differences in the colony shared between the British Kenya and the German Tanganyika. It begins with the shopkeeper brother Rehana Zakariya, an Indian-African woman, finding a collapsed Martin Pearce due to exhaustion in a square, in front of a mosque. He was taken to the shop. Rehana, for a while, thinks he may be the husband who abandoned her years ago. An English gentleman and Orientalist, Pearce speaks Arabic and soon falls in love with Rehana who feels freed from lonely life in a crumbling town down the Kenyan coast from Mombasa where the culture and religion are alien. But tragically the romance ends as it succumbs to scandal Gurnah wrote, “the age of Pocahontas when a romantic fling with a savage princess could be described as an adventure”.
Afterlives (2020), is a transitional form of Paradise ,in the early 20th century, prior to the end of German colonisation of East Africa in 1919 – a narrative of three characters, interlinked. Restless but ambitious Ilyas is stolen from his parents by the Schutzruppe askari – German colonial troops. When he returns to his village after years, his parents were gone and his sister Afiya given away. Hamza,another character was sold, not stolen. He has come of age in the army A right hand of an officer has ensured his protection but marked him for life. Hamza does not know how the war ended. Returning to the town of his childhood, all he wants is work, however humble, and security – and the beautiful Afiya. But l Hamza too is forced to go to war on the Germans’ side and sodomised by a German officer. Wounded in an internal clash between German soldiers, he is left at a field hospital for care. Returning home, he finds neither family nor friends. Hamza’s son Ilyas becomes Elias under German rule. The individual is defenceless in the reigning Nazi ideology that forces submission and sacrifice.
Emeritus professor of postcolonial studies in the department of English in the University of Kent, UK, Gurnah’s novels recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open readers’ gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to the rest the world. His characters speak to complex identities, aside from the cultural influence of benign Islam, ethnicity in a setting of trauma of colonialism and dislocation to the West. (IPA Service)