A young man grows up with his mother on the island of Zanzibar, without knowing his father.
Some years later he is given a chance to study in England, by a family friend who is a strict disciplinarian, ensuring he succeeds in his studies. He discovers how much more difficult life can be when he becomes independent and no longer has the encouragement of his fellow countryman to push him.
“I began to understand how Ahmed had protected me, and how frightening England really was…In no time at all after I moved, I was overcome by the enormity of my abandonment, like someone weeping in a crowd.
I was astonished by the sudden surge of loneliness and terror I felt when I realized how stranded I was in this hostile place, that I did not know how to speak to people and win them over to me,that the bank, the canteen, the supermarket, the dark streets seemed so intimidating, and that I could not return from where I came – that, as I then thought, I had lost everything.Then Emma came and filled my life. I can’t describe that.”
The novel opens with the following lines that say much about our protagonist and are a reference to twin themes of memory and identity that thread throughout the narrative and an ever present silence, his accomplice.
“I have found myself leaning heavily on this pain. At first I tried to silence it, thinking it would go and leave me to my agitated content. That it would linger for a season, a firm reminder of the disquiet that lurks and coils below the surface of the stubbornly self-gratifying vision of our lives. Far from going, it became more clear, more precisely located, concrete, an object that occupied space within me, cockroachy, dark and intimate, emitting thick, stinking fumes that reeked of loneliness and terror. When I woke up in the morning, I groped for it, then sighed with plunging recognition as I felt it stirring inside me, alive and well.”
We meet him in middle age, when he is sensing this pain; the doctor will tell him his heart is buggered, informing him of the susceptibility of Afro-Caribbean’s to numerous complaints. And so to the first of his many silences, to the proliferation of thoughts never spoken, used as a tool to protect himself from racism and prejudice.
“Of course, after all this drama I did not have the heart to tell him that I was not Afro-Caribbean, or any kind of Caribbean, not even anything to do with the Atlantic – strictly an Indian ocean lad, Muslim, orthodox Sunni by upbringing, Wahhabi by association and still unable to escape the consequences of those early constructions.”
He had been surprised by Emma’s interest in him. They had become a couple and a had a child together. Amelia, now a teenager whom he is barely able to relate to. He has become a disappointment to her without understanding why.
Due to Emma’s rebelliousness against her middle class, conventional parents, they had never married. Our unnamed narrator never complained about this situation, he was beyond the reproach of his own culture, a place she had never visited, a culture his daughter knew nothing of.
Encounters with Emma’s parents predictably demonstrated racism, ignorance and insensitivity, as might be expected from an older generation when one culture or race encountered another, having had little or nothing to do them in the past – or worse – having lived and worked in a way where they had deemed themselves superior, as if it were an accepted fact.
“Murmur audibly, smile brightly, say nothing. In general that did not seem to me at the time to be a contemptible philosophy, and there were many occasions when I rebuked myself for failing to live by it more consistently. I felt Emma watching me, waiting for me to take offence about something. I had been well primed for this, to expect to be offended by something her parents were bound to say, or imply, or disguise in an apparently innocent commonplace.”
Our narrator observes everything with a mild sense of detachment, he is curious but not judgmental. He often thinks of things he could have said, should have said, but didn’t. His silence will have consequences. He uses them as a pause or space between the past and present, a void that sets him on a collision course with reality, resulting in disappointment and self-deception.
The narrative voice comes across like he is explaining things to to the uninitiated, to others also not from England, to the outsider; perhaps as a warning, not to do as he has done.
“So I went to see my doctor in the end. I became afraid for my pitiful life and went to see my doctor. You can say that in England. My doctor. Here everyone has a doctor all to themselves.”
His observations of the nuances of the cross-cultural, inter-racial relationship are bittersweet. Following fond memories of a holiday in the lake district where they read poetry and take long walks, he ponders the moment things changed with his daughter.
I have photographs of that time and I know I don’t imagine the impossible contentment they portray.
Then she grew up, I suppose. She spoke to her mother about things that she must have thought I would not be able to help her with.It was predictable, but it was also oddly painful. She wanted to do things differently, in ways that seemed strange to me, and when I said this to her I felt a distance growing between us. I suppose I was slow to realize that she did not want to be treated as a beloved child any more, who would listen avidly to my wise thoughts and advice and then change her plans accordingly. So the first time she shouted angrily at me, I cried. I remember her distress then, but perhaps there was nothing either of us knew how to do to prevent the distance growing. Maybe it was more my fault then hers, because I was slow to learn to make room for her, to withdraw gracefully and with affection. And the distance grew into a habit, with only moments of fondness breaking into the hurtful watchfulness.
Due to the political situation in Zanzibar, it is 20 years before he returns. He has not told his family about his personal life in England. His relationship with Emma is increasingly difficult, as they fall into patterns they seem not to be able to extract themselves from.
When he returns home, he finds that little has changed. His family set about doing what they have always done, intervening. Though he knows he probably won’t go along with anything they are arranging for him, he allows situations to progress further than they should, given his circumstance. It will require him to be more present and to do more than just observe what is happening around him, he ought to take action he tells himself, before things get out of control.
It is a recognition of heightened awareness, the consequence of which is a loss, an understanding, whose price is to live in the ‘in-between’, to make one continually ponder who they really are, to where they belong.
Brilliantly told, observed and felt. Gurnah’s portrayal of the unnamed narrator is insightful, and realistic, capturing what it might feel like to be trapped between two cultures, with a foot in each camp, neither quite belonging to one or other, seeing through them both, existing in a kind of no man’s land, a threshold that many occupy, though rarely under the exact same circumstance.
The way the novel ends feels realistic, it leaves some of the story to the reader’s imagination, it reminds us of how many different combinations of circumstances exist with people being born and/or raised in cultures not of their parents, or marrying across cultures.
“Gurnah’s dedication to truth and his aversion to simplification are striking. This can make him bleak and uncompromising, at the same time as he follows the fates of individuals with great compassion and unbending commitment. His novels recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world. In Gurnah’s literary universe, everything is shifting – memories, names, identities.” Anders Olsson, Chairman of the Nobel Committee
I loved the novel, it was a 5 star read for me, highly recommended, I hope to read By The Sea next.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, Author
Abdulrazak Gurnah is a Tanzanian-born British novelist and academic. He was born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar and moved to the UK in the 1960s as a refugee during the Zanzibar Revolution.
After liberation from British colonial rule in December 1963, Zanzibar went through a revolution which led to oppression and persecution of citizens of Arab origin; massacres occurred. Gurnah belonged to the victimised ethnic group and after finishing school was forced to leave his family and flee the country, by then the newly formed Republic of Tanzania. He was eighteen years old. He did not return until 1984.
Gurnah has published ten novels and a number of short stories. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021 “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.
The theme of the refugee’s disruption runs throughout his work. He began writing as a 21-year-old in English exile, and even though Swahili was his first language, English became his literary tool. In his work, he consciously breaks with convention, upending the colonial perspective to highlight that of the indigenous populations.
Memory of Departure (1987) Pilgrims Way (1988) Dottie (1990) Paradise (1994) Admiring Silence (1996) By the Sea (2001) Desertion (2005) The Last Gift (2011) Gravel Heart (2017) Afterlives (2020)
Biography + Bibliography of Gurnah’s Works – Nobel Prize for Literature Committee
Interview with Abdulrazak Gurnah