Gurnah, Abdulrazak S

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GURNAH, Abdulrazak S.

Nationality: English. Born: Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania), 1948. Education: Earned a Ph.D. Career: Worked as a hospital orderly; lecturer in English and American literature, Rutherford College, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, England. Address: School of English, Rutherford College, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NX, England.



Memory of Departure. London, Jonathan Cape, 1987.

Pilgrim's Way. London, Jonathan Cape, 1988.

Dottie. London, Jonathan Cape, 1990.

Paradise. New York, New Press, 1994.

Admiring Silence. New York, New Press, 1996.


Editor and contributor, Essays on African Writing 1: A Re-evaluation. Oxford, England, Heinemann, 1994.

Editor and contributor, Essays on African Writing 2: Contemporary Literature. Oxford, England, Heinemann, 1996.


Critical Studies : "Abdulrazak Gurnah's Paradise and Admiring Silence: History, Stories, and the Figure of the Uncle" by Jacqueline Bardolphin, in Contemporary African Fiction, edited by Derek Wright, 1997.

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Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar, had already acquired a reputation as a scholar and critic of African literature and published three novels set in the immigrant community in England when in 1994 Paradise was short-listed for the Booker Prize. This was followed in 1996 by Admiring Silence, partly set in the UK and Tanzania. Critics wondered how to classify Gurnahas a Black British author, African writer, or simply a modern writer of the English language.

Paradise certainly deserves a place in East-African prose fiction, because the language policies in Tanzania had for a long time discouraged the use of English and gave preference to Kiswahili, while the coastal Swahili and Zansibari writers such as Said Khamis would never think of writing in English. The only other English novels of comparable caliber are those written by the African-Indian author M.G. Vassanji, The Gunny Sack (1989) or Uhuru Street (1991). Just like Vassanji, whose attention focuses on the East-African Indian community and their interaction with the "others," Gurnah's novel deploys multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism on the shores of the Indian Ocean from the perspective of the Swahili elite. Paradise spans the period from 1900-14, the time when the German colonial presence began to interfere drastically with the lives of the different communities in Tanganyika until the end of the short-lived episode of German colonialism. The dominant topic of the novel being an inland journey into the "heart of Africa," other colonial texts interfere intertextually: First of all, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness about Kurtz's boat trip up the Congo river, but also the famous narrative of Tippu Tip, who reached the central lake area with his slave-hunting expeditions. Gurnah's text also relates to the imperial grand tales of explorationSpeke's Discovery of the Sources of the Nile (1863) and Richard Burton's The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860).

The novel begins in Kawa, a small inland trading town that came into existence through the construction of the Tanganyika railway. Kawa, in the eyes of the novel's characters, is the liminal town between savagery and heathenism or the coastal civilization of the Arab-Swahili Muslim elite. From Kawa, Uncle Aziz, a rich Arab trader, sets out for his trading safaris into the hinterland, shipping his goods from the coast to Kawa by rail. Twelve-year-old Yusuf, through whose eyes and voice we follow the story, is the son of a petty trader who runs a hotel-plus-shop for Uncle Aziz. He pawns his son into the services of the Seeyid/Master to serve his debts. Thus, Yusuf comes to the coastal city to work as the shop assistant together with Khalil, five years his senior and also pawned to Aziz by his impoverished parents. The shop is situated at the edge of Aziz's compound, facing the city and the harbor. Inside his palace, Aziz had a beautiful "walled garden," modeled according to the Quoranic description of paradise, where Yusuf can sneak in occasionally to assist Mzee Hamdani, the gardener and guardian. At one time, Aziz hires out Yusuf to Hamid Suleiman, another shop owner in a nameless town at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. But the most dramatic part of the plot is the journey into the hinterland across the Great Lake (Victoria?) to the capital of the powerful African king Chatu, renowned for his savagery, treachery, and being a bloodthirsty ruler. Uncle Aziz's safari does reach the goal of its quest, but instead of doing profitable business, buying ivory from Chatu, Chatu attacks Aziz's camp in the night, kills many men, and robs all the provisions and trade goods. Aziz, Yusuf, and a few others are lucky to escape with their lives.

Abdulrazak Gurnah thus created three distinct spaces in which the novel unfolds: the cultured and civilized coastal city, unquestionably controlled by the Arab traders and the Swahili elite; the inland trading town with their liminal position between civilization and the wilderness; and thirdly, the indefinite open space of lands, stretching from those outposts of civilization to the power center of "savagery." Lastly, there are the German colonialists who don't care about the Swahili elite's niceties of distinguishing between coastal sophistication and inland barbarism, because for them all non-whites are savages.

The concept of paradise is of paramount importance throughout the novel; once as a crucial issue of debate about religious concepts between the Hindu Kalasinga and the Muslim Hamid. But Paradise is also visualized and concretized in the gardens, first Aziz's garden in the city: "the garden was divided into quarters, with a pool in the center and water channels running off it in the four direction. The quadrants were planted with trees and bushes, some of them in flower: lavender, henna, rosemary and aloe clovers and grass, and scattered clumps of lilies and irises"; and second, the poor replica of the paradisiacal garden behind Hamil's shop at the foot of the mountain: " scrubs and thickets full of snakes and wild animals . Instead of the shade and flowers which Mzee Hamdani had created here there was only the bush beyond their backyard which was used for rubbish. It shuddered with secret life, and out of it rose fumes of putrefaction and pestilence." Scenic vistas and landscape descriptions during the disastrous trading expedition underline the contrast between the uncultured natural scenery and the sophistication of the pleasure garden. Gurnah develops the garden on the coast and the roughlyhewn makeshift residence of the inland king Chatu as symbolic spaces, representing the Swahili perspective of civilization against barbarism. Aziz's garden however is paradisiacal only in appearance, in reality it reflects social and racial oppression: Mzee Hamdani, who tends the garden lovingly, has the status of a mere chattel slave. Aziz's senior wife, who haunts the garden, is facially disfigured and morally degenerated. Her walks in the garden resemble prison yard exercises, her lusting for young Yusuf approaches a pedophilic perversion while her open sore, which she tries to hide under her shaddor, can only be read as an image for the sickening quality of Aziz's home. And Aziz's youngest child-wife Amina, with whom Yusuf is enamoured, is another pawn given by Aziz's tenants. What might look like paradise and is designed according to the Quoranic scriptures, proves to be pure hell for the members of Aziz's household. The ending of the novel reveals the falsity of another idealization, that of the paradisiacal harmony of pre-colonial Africa. Yusuf runs after the German recruiting officer, although he has just witnessed the brutality with which forced recruitment is practiced in the wake of World War I. Yusuf as the young African obviously came to the conclusion that the brutality of German colonialism is still preferable to the ruthless exploitation by the Arabs. As Achebe does in Things Fall Apart, Gurnah draws a picture of East-African society that is on the verge of drastic change. Colonialism only accelerated this process, but did not initiate it. Gurnah narrates his story with two parallel but contrastive plot lines: Yusuf's is a story of growing up and gaining staturea bildungsroman while the historical plotline is one of decay and degeneration of pre-colonial African society.

With Admiring Silence, Gurnah returns to postcolonial Tanzania. Admiring Silence, like Paradise, has storytelling as one of its main subjects. His protagonist is a leftish dissident intellectual who left the country and settled in England, precariously but permanently, with his partner Emma. He tries to pacify Emma's father, a diehard imperialist, with idealized and idyllic stories about his youth, about the gallant courtship of his father and mother, inventing ever new fabrications about "home" as the demands of his British audience seems to require. When he returns home, he is frustrated by the discrepancy between the stories he inventedand started to half believeand the dreary realities. The house of his parents is close to decay; essential services like water, electricity, and garbage disposal fail regularly. In addition, his schoolmates have become corrupt, self-seeking bureaucrats, and his mother was not gallantly courted but given as a pawn to his father. And yet, he never found the courage to inform his parents that he has been living together with a white infidela "kafir woman." When he is introduced to the child-wife who his relatives chose for him, he panics and flees "home," which is now England, only to find that Emma left and that he is condemned to be "on the edges of everything," on his own island in England. The hero despairs of establishing communication between the two worlds.

Eckhard Breitinger