This hope was well placed. Propelled by the worldwide recognition the Swedish Academy has conferred, Gurnah’s books are finally reprinted in America, and his latest, “Afterlives”, is published by Riverhead, America’s most savvy publisher of literary fiction. Consider this a belated invitation that you shouldn’t ignore.
Now 73, Gurnah fled to England as a teenage refugee after the 1964 uprising in Zanzibar. He began writing fiction in English – his first language was Swahili – and eventually became a professor of English at the University of Kent, where he taught for several decades. Throughout his career, he has endeavored to imprint on a forgetful world the experiences of people displaced and rendered invisible.
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“Afterlives” shows how gracefully Gurnah works in two registers simultaneously. The story is both a global epic of European colonialism and an intimate look at village life in one of the many neglected corners of the Earth. Both parts – the claims of history and heart – are equally telling.
Germany’s atrocities in the mid-20th century tended to mask the horror of its earlier colonial ambitions, but by the 1880s Deutsch-Ostafrika was a massive colony that disrupted the lives of millions of Africans. Acknowledging the cultural amnesia he works against, Gurnah writes: “Later these events would be turned into tales of nonchalant, nonchalant heroism, a spectacle parallel to the great tragedies in Europe, but for those who lived through it, it was a time when their country was soaked in blood and littered with corpses.
Indeed, the mere fact of detailing such crimes would risk dissolving the victims in pools of suffering. But Gurnah avoids this faux pas by gently invigorating the lives of a few African characters in all their rich humanity and even their comedy, without sentimentality or condescension. It is storytelling as an act of resistance against colonialism’s effort to homogenize and erase.
Gurnah defines “Afterlives” in East Africa in the early 20th century after “the Germans and the British and the French and the Belgians and the Portuguese and the Italians and whoever else had already had their congresses and drawn their maps and signed their treaties”. But because these cruelly oblivious documents failed to account for the African people living here, the region remains in a constant cycle of suffering, rebellion and repression. And so “Afterlives” deftly inverts the old Western narrative, making Europeans the background characters, while bringing East Africans to the fore.
At the center of the story is an Indian African named Khalifa who lives in an unnamed town. Like almost everyone he knows, he grew up in the shadow of colonialism. Equipped with some bookkeeping skills, a bit of English and an enthusiasm for gossip, Khalifa gets a job as a clerk with a local merchant, a kind of land pirate who plays on both sides of German rule. By all appearances, Khalifa’s boss is a “holy member of the community”, but those who know this Dickensian character see him instead as secretive and ruthless, willing to do anything that pays off, including bribery, smuggling , money lending and hoarding.
At the start of the novel, Khalifa’s boss sets him up to marry a young relative. “Khalifa knew that the merchant was giving her away to him and that the young woman would have little say in the matter,” Gurnah writes with his usual plaintive wit. “Khalifa agreed to the arrangement because he didn’t think he could refuse and because he wanted to.” But soon enough, Khalifa realizes that her marriage was arranged not out of generosity towards him but in the hope of solving one of the merchant’s real estate projects. Thus, lives are redirected to new trajectories for reasons entirely beyond the control of the participants.
This erratic pattern remains the rule for Gurnah’s characters, especially a young man named Ilyas, who becomes Khalifa’s best friend. Ilyas was kidnapped as a child by an African mercenary and eventually sent to a German missionary school. When he finally returns home, he is reunited with his orphaned sister, but soon he feels inspired to enlist with the Germans and help them in the coming Great War.
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In one of the novel’s many clever maneuvers, most of the story takes place in Ilyas’ absence. This gentle, earnest man remains a lingering negative space, a mystery that has plagued his sister and Khalifa for years. What did he do with the Germans? Did he survive the war? These questions hover over the surface of the plot like a watermark.
But a parallel incident involving another young man named Hamza provides a fascinating insight into what it was like for East Africans in the service of their European occupiers. Long before Hamza’s life is incorporated into the main storyline, we see him struggling to navigate the impossible currents of German desire and loathing. His precarious and humiliating experience as the cherished companion of a powerful officer becomes a haunting metaphor for the plight of Africa in German geopolitics.
“Afterlives” places high demands on readers. Gurnah moves fluidly between the complicated lives of its characters and the reckless actions of ancient empires. Unless you are familiar with early 20th century African history, you will google as you go. But the investment of attention will be fully rewarded. And you’ll fall even more in love with this novel as its focus gradually narrows to focus on the hopes and dreams of Hamza and his wife, who manage to carve out a little oasis for themselves using only the purity of their affection. .
At one point, pressed to provide details about his past, Hamza said, “You want me to tell you about myself as if I had a full story, but all I have are fragments that hang by troubling gaps.” This is perhaps Gurnah’s greatest act of love and artistry: her ability to piece together the fragments of shattered lives and create a breathtaking mosaic.
Ron Charles book reviews and writing Book club newsletter for the Washington Post.
On September 13 at 7 p.m., Abdulrazak Gurnah will discuss “Afterlives” with Tope Folarin at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington. Tickets are available to watch in person or online.
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