Fame, if you asked David Bowie, wasn’t worth much: “the most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants.” Over in bookstores, I’d add, you might actually take a hit. An author who gains a name—say, winning the Nobel, like Abdulrazak Gurnah—can also lose shelf-space. The books can vanish, in the libraries as well as the shops, and even before the supply chain grew sluggish, restocking could take a while.
This holds true especially for Gurnah. Before Stockholm called, his fiction had earned high praise but modest exposure, and most of both over in the UK. A Zanzibar native, he came to England as a teenage refugee, in the late 1960s. Educated in London and elsewhere, his first novel took twenty years, and it established his pervading concern with Britain and its broken promises. All ten books have to do with the misused former East African colonies and their mistreated émigrés, and here in the States only a handful saw print. A week after the Nobel, a Times headline asked, “Why are his books so hard to find?”
His case is hardly the first, of course. The 2018 Nobel winner, Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, caught Americans likewise flatfooted. But Tokarczuk’s fiction shows little regard for convention, fragmented, discontinuous, at times surreal. Gurnah keeps his narratives firmly grounded, always in England or East Africa, often contemporary and never further back than the early twentieth-century. His characters develop with subtle complexity, even a carpetbagger can make us care, and the imperatives that drive everyone, white or Black, always come back to colonialism. Gurnah’s old-school concerns also carry over to his style, decorous though never vague, for instance when lovers at last get some time alone:
When he returned, he went straight to their room where Afiya joined him for the sweetest part of the day. They talked for hours, reading old newspapers, catching up with each other’s lives, looking into the future, making love.
That’s from Afterlives, his current novel—as of yet impossible to find in US stores. Yet the author’s classic strengths by no means render him stodgy, no more than they do V.S. Naipaul, perhaps the most useful comparison. Gurnah has a sense of humor, certainly, and By the Sea, a Booker near-miss in 2001, stands out for its hustling picaresque energy. Even in that case, though, the two leads are displaced Zanzibarians who bear nagging wounds out of the former “Tanganyika.” Across that region, Europeans lay a heavy hand; the British rule is better known, thanks to Doris Lessing and others, but earlier came “Deutsch-Ostafrika.” Both regimes play havoc throughout Gurnah’s two most celebrated novels, Paradise (1994, shortlisted for the Booker and other prizes), and Afterlives.
In both, we spend much of our time on the coast of the Indian Ocean, under either German or English sway. The mood is serious, the time sequence straightforward, the drama all about cultures in conflict. Paradise features a trek into the interior on the verge of the First World War, when great swaths of the Congo were still Indigenous. The odyssey unfolds as a tour de force, it’s drawn comparisons to Heart of Darkness, but the return is what matters. In a devastating irony, the young protagonist is pressed into slavery; the Kaiser needs Schutztruppen, cannon fodder of color, to hold off the British. Those hostilities also play a pivotal role in the new novel. The German rout achieves the same nightmare power as the earlier narrative’s inland voyage, but Afterlives, as the title implies, doesn’t stop there.
With some five or six major players, all African, the latest novel dwells a while in both European “protectorates,” then eventually ushers everyone to independence. Its final mysteries are solved by a citizen of Tanzania, about the same time as Gurnah himself first came to England. This character shares his creator’s polylingual command, and while in Germany makes discoveries of improbable richness, affirmations steeped in tragedy—the sort of effect that distinguishes the finest fiction.
Nevertheless, Afterlives only found a US house following the Nobel. Riverhead won’t be bringing it out till next August, and I got the UK edition thorough an unexpected stroke of luck. Yet as I’ve tried to demonstrate, the novels are all solid work at the least, and a natural fit for any healthy publishing industry. That’s the real question—the shame, perhaps—concerning Gurnah’s ghost status in our country.
Page by page, Afterlives feels little like my sweeping summary above. Intimacy rules, rather. The first paragraph concludes with a family revelation: “His complexion, his hair, his nose, all favoured his African mother but he loved to announce his lineage… Yes, yes, my father was an Indian… he married my mother and stayed loyal.” The same goes for the final turn of the plot, the secrets uncovered in Berlin and Hamburg; those too entail transgressive love and families reconfigured. In this novel, everyone’s closest connections are put through refinements and adjustments.
Surprising affections crop up even in the war passages. Among the Schutztruppen is Hamza, one of Gurnah’s main players, and inevitably his unit gets decimated. The British Africans have all the advantages, disease and starvation take a gruesome toll, and soon Hamza’s own white “bwana” is “goaded into worse ferocity… by a fear of mutiny.” Yet his Oberleutnant winds up saving his life, in an act of humanity complicated further by erotic yearning for the subaltern. Other soldiers may snigger at this, saying the officer “wants someone sweet and pretty to massage his back,” but the larger context is of an acceptance remarkable for the time and society.
That said, I’d be badly off-base to suggest Afterlives is all about illicit love, or a war novel either. Neither can encompass a narrative like this. Gurnah settles in for long stretches with each of his major characters, all African but out of very different backgrounds, while also covering more than half a century of vast international changes. He brings off something improbably capacious, for a novel of less than 300 pages, and once in a long while this set me fretting about his need to summarize. Every once in a long while, the author sounded more like an encyclopedist than a storyteller: “The manoeuvres were to discipline and terrify the… villagers and make them obey government instructions.”
Still, overviews like that seem unavoidable, considering the project as a whole, and Afterlives shifts swiftly out of each. It finds a more intimate gear, prowling the kitchen or bedroom. The violence that binds all the central characters may not occur on any battlefield, but rather in the home, when a stepfather beats young Afiya, prompting that girl to seek help from another of the protagonists. What develops next isn’t a romance, nothing so predictable; rather, over time, Afiya and her savior pull together an alternative family, one that has the sympathy and the space for all those different backgrounds.
Gathering lost souls and shepherding them to safe haven, the vision seems central, no less, to what’s been called “a century of wandering.” The phrase is from Salman Rushdie, another author who must’ve come up in the Nobel discussions. As to why he was passed over, along with Margaret Atwood and others, ultimately we’ve no idea—no more than we do concerning Gurnah’s unavailability in the States. Race figures in there somewhere, it always does, and the conventional wisdom remains that Americans won’t read about faraway places with funny-sounding names. Other factors come to mind as well, including pure dumb luck. Nevertheless, I can’t dismiss the question with a shrug: who knows? I can’t help but think otherwise: we deserve better.