It came as a surprise last December when Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Zanzibar native who has been in England for most of the last fifty years, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He himself did not take the call seriously until he saw his name flash across the committee’s website. Tellingly, most of his novels were then out of print, both in the United States and in England, where they nevertheless enjoy what his agent calls a “small circle of keen readers.” “I could do with more readers,” Gurnah said upon winning.

Naturally the ensuing coverage of the prize dwelled on the author’s African origins. Gurnah is only the second black African to win the prize, after Wole Soyinka in 1986.

Gurnah recently retired from his position as professor of literature, with a specialty in postcolonial works, at the University of Kent, in Canterbury. He has written ten novels, often focused on life in his native Zanzibar, an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. Frequently he is called a critic of European, especially British, colonialism and its aftermath in East Africa. Others of his novels chronicle the experiences of African immigrants in England. Gurnah, born in 1948, arrived in England in 1968 to continue his education—and stayed. Considering our current landscape, fraught with sensitivities surrounding race and immigration, one may wonder to what extent this prize rewards political subject matter, or diversity, rather than literary quality.

Gurnah’s books express thoughts about colonialism and its aftermath that are as complicated as the historic reality demands.

As it happens, much of Gurnah’s work is very good indeed, and all of what I’ve encountered is interesting and highly readable. It is compelling enough to draw the reader into a world of East African tumult. The language is both lush and controlled, the humor mordant. And, despite his stating politically correct positions in interviews, Gurnah’s books express thoughts about colonialism and its aftermath that are as complicated as the historic reality demands. This is important, considering how many authors fully embrace an unnuanced antipathy towards colonialism and, indeed, the West and its institutions.

Gurnah has little nice to say about the British, whether colonial or current, though he does fairly depict the education, law, and modernity that they brought to East Africa. He is considerably harsher and more detailed about the abuses perpetuated by the (Soviet-backed) Africans who took over Tanzania in 1964 after the (problematically hasty) British exit and who foisted bloody Marxist revolution, terror, deep corruption, and economic devastation on the population. In various novels, he grapples with the abuses, jailings for spurious charges, and murders that the revolutionary government pursued. In two novels, government ministers take other men’s wives as their mistresses just because they can.

Gurnah is secondarily interested in the plight of women in a traditional Muslim society, especially in the actions of female characters who are presented with ugly choices. He depicts the effects public cuckoldry has on the husbands, who become objects of derision. In Gurnah’s Africa, families are the font of life. But relationships are often poisoned by the personality and actions of a weak father. Ultimately, Gurnah does not romanticize the Africa he left behind, nor do his characters.

Gurnah doesn’t romanticize anyone else either. Not the Indian traders who were the backbone of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Zanzibari economic culture, and certainly not the Omani Arabs who ran the place—including the very vigorous slave trade that was the heart of its economy—from the fall of the Portuguese in 1698 to the advent of the British protectorate in 1890. Because his language is lively and rich, and in some cases perfumed in the oriental manner, the criticisms of Africa are not made directly. But they are there for the reader to observe.

The bright prose moves the story ahead briskly.

I read Paradise (1994) shortly after the Nobel was announced. It was the only one of Gurnah’s novels that Amazon had in stock before Bloomsbury rushed out new editions of everything. The copy I received was a badly printed product of the City University of New York’s nonprofit publishing imprint, New Press International Fiction, which exists to publish works that contribute more to “the intellectual rather than commercial bottom line.” Paradise is a compelling novel, arguably Gurnah’s best, and it was long-listed for the Booker Prize. The bright prose moves the story ahead briskly. A boy named Yusuf is separated from his family at the tender age of twelve and must invent himself against the chaotic backdrop of a coastal commercial society heavily striated by tribal, religious, and national-origin subcultures. The class hierarchy is clear: Arabs at the coast run things, including much trade, and make the rules. Indian merchants, who often have been in the country for generations, do the grubbier commerce. Black Africans have few opportunities.

“Separated from his family” means that Yusuf’s father, an unsuccessful merchant in an inland Tanzanian town, has given him to a more successful merchant in lieu of repaying a debt for merchandise. That is, the boy was sold into slavery. He does not understand what has happened, though he comes to accept the results, which leave him lonely over the years.

The story is set in the decade prior to World War I, not long after the British had taken over Zanzibar as a protectorate. They had abolished the slave trade, which was the key to regional wealth. And they had nominally abolished slavery. Nevertheless, Yusuf is owned by “Uncle” Aziz, who treats him with varying amounts of decency and self-interest. He provides training to make Yusuf useful in the household and business, though no education to read the Koran.

Yusuf is a smart boy, and he learns how to do what is required. More perilously, he is a beautiful boy, which leaves him vulnerable to local older men and women eager to engage him sexually. Gurnah skillfully depicts the pathos of abandoned older women and homosexual men who desire intimate contact alongside the uglier predatory aspects of these exchanges. The author, who frequently imparts sexual virtue to his male characters, has Yusuf resist all of it.

Gurnah describes the ugly cultural realities that face Yusuf as a routine matter. It is surprising to read such clear depictions of native behavior that is primitive and often self-defeating. This is not what you would expect from reading reviews in major newspapers or blurbs. The back cover of the New Press edition, for instance, tells us that the book is “a tale of the corruption of African tradition by European colonialism.” That description bears no resemblance to the story. The plot contains a major trading expedition to the interior, which has some harrowing moments when Arab and Indian traders come up against African tribes whose leaders prefer to take goods by force, not exchange, thereby precluding economic modernity. Such descriptions throw light on traditional African behaviors that were ended by the law and education the British brought—not that Gurnah comes out and says it. But it is hard to miss.

Except for Paradise, which is set fully in its moment, Gurnah focuses deeply on memory. He is obsessed with the memories of African immigrants in England. Some are remembrances of a distant childhood in Africa, some of a lifetime. Sometimes they include the fascinating history of Zanzibar as a major trading center, complete with businessmen and the odd characters who come ashore with the trade winds. Always they include the depredations of the revolutionary government there in the 1960s and ’70s. But for all the memory, Gurnah’s immigrant characters evince no longing for the homeland. They left Zanzibar behind deliberately. They left problematic families. Maybe they’ll go back to visit. Maybe they’ll stay and put down roots. They are unsettled at best. But comfort and opportunities suggest that they will stay in England—just as the author did.

By the Sea (2001) is a strong novel that is more typical of Gurnah’s work. It is about a once-successful sixty-five-year-old businessman ruined by the devastating revolution in Zanzibar and now seeking asylum in England. The book is about the life left behind. In By the Sea, Gurnah spins memories into intricate stories within stories that are redolent of Scheherazade’s tales in the Arabian Nights. As a matter of structure, By the Sea, which begins grimly with an impoverished older man seeking asylum in England, turns into dueling tales of history and memory, told alternately by the immigrant and the younger son of a family enemy, whom the protagonist meets via the immigration process. The parrying of stories and explanations to create a complicated, perhaps truthful, narrative is done brilliantly.

It is a problem that every one of his immigrant Africans has a good reason to have left.

For those who think Gurnah is resolutely anticolonial, it is a problem that every one of his immigrant Africans has a good reason to have left. They’ve not just left their native lands but gone specifically to the home of the former colonizers: England itself. This is gray territory, filled with ambivalence. Ambivalence, not antipathy, characterizes Gurnah’s approach to history.

Early in By the Sea Gurnah comes out and says it. He does not absolve the British for their governing flaws or their chilly reception of the apparently uneducated refugee. But the narrator, who is educated, makes a blunt statement of just how seductive the British seemed to a young boy:

Years before, the British authorities had been good enough to pick me out of the ruck of native schoolboys eager for more of their kind of education . . . [T]here was glamor in this kind of learning, something to do with being alive to the modern world. I think also we secretly admired the British, for their audacity in being there, such a long way from home, calling the shots with such an appearance of assurance, and for knowing so much about how to do the things that mattered: curing diseases, flying aeroplanes, making movies. Perhaps admired is too uncomplicated. . . . [I]t was closer to conceding to their command over our material lives. . . . In their books I read unflattering accounts of my history, and because they were unflattering, they seemed truer than the stories we told ourselves. . . . The stories we knew about ourselves before they took charge of us seemed medieval and fanciful, sacred and secret myths that were liturgical metaphors and rites of adherence, a different category of knowledge which, despite our assertive observance, could not contest with theirs.

The Last Gift (2011), which is the weakest of the novels I have read, starts with the collapse of an older man on his way home from work in a small British city. The man, Abbas, is an immigrant from Tanzania. He has a wife who also lacks an English pedigree. The couple has a grown daughter and college-age son who have been raised in England. Abbas regrets never having told anyone the true story of why he left home.

In his youth, Abbas, the youngest brother of several, got to go to the new British school in town, away from the farm where his father has the other brothers working. Abbas wins a scholarship to college in a distant town. He wants to be a teacher. But he gets caught up in the family drama of the wealthy neighbors, whose beautiful daughter he marries quickly. She becomes pregnant immediately. Or perhaps she was already pregnant, and her family needed a husband for her. She was adopted, not the natural daughter or sister of the household, so anything is possible.

Abbas becomes paranoid and throws his future away to escape this possible premarital cuckoldry. In the dead of night, he leaves to become a sailor, landing eventually in England, where he marries and makes a life. This story of leaving behind a wife pregnant with what may have been his child is so shameful that he never gets around to telling his wife or children anything of his origins. Nor has he ever contacted his original family. This festers and creates distance, which deprives Abbas’s family in England of an identity. Nevertheless, Gurnah had the family do well over time. They are solidly middle-class homeowners, with two college-educated children. The English family may feel distance—maybe that is always a cost of immigration—but England has provided opportunity.

The Last Gift contains Gurnah’s longest riffs on awful British people. The daughter lives with a young British academic. The relationship is having difficulties. It doesn’t help that the boyfriend’s father uses racist language casually and refers to their future children as “jungle bunnies.” The more the father drinks, the worse it gets. The relationship ends. This seemed like a mere plot device to bring in a caricature of a snooty, immigrant-hating upper-class Brit. The “last gift” of the title is the promise of a visit to Abbas’s ancestral homeland, to provide missing “identity.”

On the matter of Islam, which provides the ambient culture in all these novels, our author is clearly a liberal. Most of his characters are “cafeteria Muslims,” picking and choosing which rules they will follow. Though the Koran provides solace, most of the younger immigrants go native on alcohol and pork. And when Gurnah creates a pious character, it is usually a matter of compensation for moral weakness or failure. This reflects East African Islam in the latter half of the twentieth century, which bore no resemblance to the Wahhabi fundamentalism with which we are now too familiar.

Though the Koran provides solace, most of the younger immigrants go native on alcohol and pork.

In The Last Gift, Jamal, the university-aged son, becomes somewhat radicalized during the aftermath of 9/11. He says that America got what it deserved. He sympathizes with the Palestinians. It upsets him that the Britain in which he was raised is not enthusiastic about Islam. He prays with fellow Muslim students. The depiction seems realistic for a character compensating for feeling like an outsider.

Many of Gurnah’s English characters are depicted as shabby or pathetic, though his basest characters are all Africans. In Gravel Heart (2017), Salim, a young Zanzibarian man from a broken family, is betrayed by the wealthy uncle who brought him to England to study and must now fend for himself. He makes his way in the subculture of African and Asian students attached to the university, working hard and studying. When he begins having sexual relationships, we hear about the loose English women he sees, all a little sad. But the latter part of the novel depicts the consequences of a sexual choice his mother made, when her brother, the bad uncle, a louse of whom she was overly protective, got in trouble and the minister in charge demanded the sister’s sexual submission as the price for letting him out of jail. Her submission destroys her marriage and family, though it buys her a new one, in which she is the “second wife.”

Desertion (2005) is two stories set in the same place over three generations. The first concerns a British orientalist in the 1890s who has fallen ill after being deserted by native guides out in the desert and is saved by a local Indian merchant. Later he sits with the colonial officer who runs the territory and they marvel about how the natives live entirely in the present: because there is no writing, there is no history. He ends up having an affair with the Indian merchant’s sister, who had been deserted by her husband.

Three generations later Rashid, another academically talented young man, escapes the chaos and terror of the Zanzibar revolution by having won a prestigious scholarship to study in London, where he is received coldly by English students. He concludes that the Keats, the Shakespeare, all the world-class literature his British teachers have taught him to love, was proffered to make him and his fellow African students aware of their inferiority—a dark surmise, but emotionally intelligible. The earlier love affair figures into the plot. Desertion, more than the others, offers direct contempt for British colonialism. But, again, the background is the destruction wrought by the new African regime in Zanzibar.

A reader looking for an engaging dive into a little-known culture could do worse than to pick up one of Gurnah’s books. The postcolonial politics will not get in the way.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 4, on page 37
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