Reading Gurnah is a bit like watching a Ray film rather than a Kurosawa or Ghatak
Abdulrazak Gurnah is a novelist and essayist and, judged by afterlives, his newest novel, he is a writer of fluidity and is imbued with a hauntingly deep sense of the place in writing about eastern Africa, although he has lived in Britain for some five decades since he was a teenager. The Tanzanian author of Arab heritage left his country for Britain as a refugee and evidently grew into a writer of substance from jotting down the experiences of displacement and exile in a notebook as he entered adulthood.
Given the quality of his prose, and the strength of his portraiture that cuts out the frills but dwells on the essence of life’s many turning points in periods of time made unstable by colonial wars and colonial suzerainty over impoverished peoples — in this case tribal nations of eastern Africa — it is surprising that Gurnah had to wait for commercial success until he found renown with the Literature Nobel in 2021. He had published nine novels previously but won no major awards.
This is a surprise, for Gurnah, as “Afterlives” shows, shines with limpid prose and brings to the fore the art of story-telling which appears to have receded in the last century. And he does so with a deceptive linearity.
The novel is set in Ostafrika, or German East Africa, which was a colony of Germany in the Great Lakes Region of Africa for roughly four decades ending with the Germany’s defeat in the First World War. The book is hard to put down. The reader is pulled in with the attention to detail in filling out characters, human relationships, delicate emotions, and also the visual picture of the locations described.
Reading Gurnah is a bit like watching a Ray film rather than a Kurosawa or Ghatak. There is no effort to make the picture either lingeringly beautiful or stark. With happiness, the writer adheres to honesty. There is only understanding presented in layers, with elegance. The situation is colonial, the economy and commerce are colonial, the wars are colonial, and life in the schutztruppethe military force of African recruits who serve under German command, is degrading and laden with racial contempt while it confers status in a poor society.
In this novel of some breadth, there are no philosophical detours or sermonizing, no rallying cry against colonialism, and no moral lessons. But there is an inherent appeal here for modernity, logic, education, and an urging to leave behind superstitions and ritual expressed through the ironies and sarcasms of the character Khalifa. What is also held aloft is the compelling force of understatement through which is glimpsed the colonial history of East Africa.
The whole novel is, in fact, a gentle lesson in history and a peep into sociology. Black African lives interface with those of Gujarati Indian ancestry, with the latter being the commerce leader and the Negro the employee in a simple Islamic community somewhere on Africa’s east coast. The race divide does not set them wholly apart as there is some mixing of blood and also proximity of social and commercial contact. The separation is with the colonizer, the settler white, the European. The subject of patriarchy and gender are also touched upon.
The Indian reader is, in fact, apt to be somewhat familiar with cultural transmissions through language and with pre-banking era systems of merchants — through sank and hawala practices — described here.
The relationship between the German officer and the schutztruppe askari or soldier Hamza, who is assigned as the officer’s orderly, is marked with the contrasting emotions of racial violence as well as concern bordering on suppressed or barely expressed homosexual love on the officer’s part. This is a grippingly told slice of the novel written with minimalist beauty.
afterlives covers the cusp of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries but matures in later decades. Many lives are altered. Dislocation and re-building within the colonial framework in German—and later British- East Africa is the fluent theme of the novel. Truly ironical — and tragic — is the story of (the uncle) Ilyas who, as a refugee, ships out to Germany, only to die in a Nazi concentration camp for “defiling” an Aryan woman although he appears to have consorted with the ideology of the rulers. In a twist, this is revealed by (the nephew) Ilyas who, upon Tanzanian independence, visits Germany.
One may read in this the tortured relationship of the ruler and the ruled. But a marked absence in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s work is that of the gesture or attitude of “Negritude”, the expression coined by Aime Cesaire, the writer, poet, politician from Martinique, and the literary movement of the same name which carried simultaneously the features of rejection and assertion.
afterlives is apt to throw up an interesting question: Does this novel have a protagonist? There appear to be more than one candidate for this. In the larger scheme of things, it is perhaps the exile who is the protagonist and does not need to be the bearer of a name. Not that it matters, but this, in turn, begs the question — is this a memoiric novel?
By Abdulrazak Gurnah
pp. 275, Rs.699