Abdulrazak Gurnah, an Indoceanic biography

We are in 1963 and Rashid, a young man from the island of Zanzibar, arrives in London, the colonial metropolis par excellence, driven by a dream: to study in an English university which will allow him to immerse himself in the meanders of a English literature forged on imperialist foundations. His intention is to gain knowledge in order to return to his homeland and start a new life in a new country – after all, Zanzibar has gained independence.

Cover of the novel Desertion.

But his plans fail as soon as he sets foot on English soil: after 11 months of independence, Zanzibar is engulfed in one of the revolutions bloodiest in recent African history and Rashid, urged on by his father who foresees the dark future of the island, makes the terrible decision to stay in England.

And I say “terrible” because at that moment Rashid, as he perceives it himself, becomes an exile. In a novel that takes place in the XIXe century, we would say that we are contemplating the precise moment when the protagonist “grows” emotionally and rationally, that is, the young Rashid becomes an adult. But the novel that brings Rashid to life isn’t an old-fashioned novel: it must take place in the murky waters of a postcolonial world which, as the novel’s very title suggests, Desertion, is riddled with abandonment, absences and betrayals.

Published in 2005, Desertion is a failed attempt at historical novelbecause the story Rashid tells has no place in the annals of the British Empire. From the poignant experience of exile, Rashid unveils the forbidden romance between Martin Pearce, an Englishman, and Rehana, a love story that takes place at the end of the 19th century.e century and which attacks with force the imperialist belief in the non-existence of “serious” race relations.

Nobel Prize for Literature 2021

Why start this article on Abdulrazak Gurnah, the all new – and unexpected – 2021 Nobel Laureate in Literature, by the protagonist of one of his most elegant, most magnificent novels?

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Abdulrazak Gurnah.
Niklas Elmehed / Nobel Prize Outreach

I firmly believe that there is a lot of Gurnah in Rashid. Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948 and left his native Zanzibar with his brother when he was only 17 years old. Like Gurnah, a retired professor at the University of Kent, Rashid ended up working as a lecturer in postcolonial literature at an English university.

I have often speculated on the parallels between his exiled characters and his own life, for no other author to my knowledge has succeeded in grasping with such emotional brilliance what it means to be away from your own people and have to face the day. day after day the constant contempt for a Western world that sees itself as superior.

The exile of the characters

As the writer admits in a 2004 interview, after years of living in England, his physical appearance still elicits rejection and he can’t help but feel “strange” in the face of insulting looks from passers-by who don’t know him at all. It is undoubtedly this feeling that drives Latif Mahmud, one of the protagonists of By the Sea (On the Shore), also a university professor, to embark on a long diatribe on the meaning of the expression “grinning blackamoor”, after being insulted in the street like this.

The exiles of Rashid and Latif Mahmud join those of Saleh Omar, the other protagonist of By the Sea (2001), by Hassan in Memory of Departure (1987), by Daud in Pilgrim’s Way_ (1988), by Dottie Balfour in the novel of the same name, Dottie (1990), the unnamed narrator of Admiring Silence /Precario silencio (1996), Abbas in The Last Gift (2011) and Salim in Gravel heart (2017).

Gurnah’s work must be located in a geography defined by the contours of the Indian Ocean. To speak of Gurnah as of a Tanzanian author amounts to minimizing the cosmopolitan essence of an Indo-Oceanic coastline which is distinguished precisely by its fluidity and its animosity towards national borders. Following the route traced by the lingua franca of East Africa, Swahili, Gurnah’s texts in English navigate the history of this geographical area, revealing a fascinating world which, wrapped in a captivating narrative, brings to the fore. day and denounces the endemic presence of slavery.

The fictional world of Gurnah

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Cover of the novel Paradise.

This is the story of Yusuf, who at the age of 12 is sold by his parents to a wealthy merchant whom he calls “Uncle Aziz”. Alongside Uncle Aziz, Yusuf learns about selling human beings. Yusuf’s journey from the coast to the inland as part of the expedition led by Uncle Aziz is a detailed, painful, and moving tale of pure survival.

The “paradise” which gives its title to the novel – Paradise -, which hosts Yusuf’s story, is the uninterrupted mirage of the aspirations of a young African who wants to be free and happy. Yusuf’s adventure comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of the German army preparing for the First World War. Here we must remember something that history often forgets and that Gurnah’s fiction emphatically emphasizes, namely that East Africa was a battleground during World War I and that many Africans lost control. life in a war that, frankly, didn’t have much to do with them.

Paradise, published in 1994, was nominated the same year for the prestigious Booker Prize, arguably the UK’s most prestigious literary award.

The character does not disappear for all that from the fictional world of Gurnah, since he takes it up again in his last novel, Afterlives, published in 2020, in which we have access to the life of Yusuf, renamed Hamza, after his enlistment in the German army.

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Cover of After Lives.
Bloomsbury, CC BY

The presence of the same characters in several novels is a distinctive sign of Gurnah, forming a literary network that transports us to the imaginary world of the Thousand and One Nights, an emblematic Indo-European text which is moreover cited on several occasions in his work. .

Thus, imbued with the Indo-oceanic spirit that emerges from Gurnah’s work, such Scheherazade, I conclude this article with the absolute conviction that Gurnah’s life experience, in its most humanitarian projection, prevails in its work, endowing it with an aesthetic sensibility that deserves the most important literary prize in the world.

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Abdulrazak Gurnah, an Indoceanic biography