“Lives in Motion: The Fiction of Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah”

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by Boyd Tonkin headlined “Lives in Motion: The Fiction of Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah”:

Hindsight has a habit of turning outsiders into dead certs. Until last Thursday, two writers of East African origin had been credibly tipped as possible winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature: the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Somali-born Nuruddin Farah. Yet the Swedish Academy, playing their cards close their vest, dealt the world a surprise by naming an unheralded third: Abdulrazak Gurnah, born on the island of Zanzibar in 1948 and a British resident since the late 1960s. The Academy saluted the novelist, who writes in English, for “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

Given the Nobel selectors’ stated wish to correct their “Eurocentric” bias (no black African had won since Wole Soyinka in 1986), another laureate from beyond Europe looked not only plausible but, according to the logic of their opaque deliberations, desirable. But why this one: an esteemed but (in media terms) low-profile author-academic who recently retired as professor of English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent? Unlike other awards, the Nobel can choose to honor steady, slow-building careers that quietly flourish away from the limelight. The author of 10 novels and many uncollected stories, Mr. Gurnah has cultivated his own patch of ground with an artistry and authority that saw his fiction respected and cherished rather than garlanded (although “Paradise,” in 1994, did reach the Booker shortlist). Alexandra Pringle, Mr. Gurnah’s loyal editor at the London publisher Bloomsbury, has complained of his neglect. But, in Britain at least, he has won critical acclaim, devoted readers and a place in the postcolonial canon.

Critic and scholar as well as novelist, he has also played a forceful role in enlarging the world of bookish Britain—for instance, by many contributions to the international literature magazine Wasafiri….As for his fiction: Book by book, each elegantly crafted story of lives in transit through an interconnected world may have made modest waves. From a wider angle, the whole oeuvre swelled into a mighty tide….

This long-haul winner himself evokes slow-burning lives. Emigrés, refugees, self-propelled migrants or the unwilling flotsam of a bitter history, Mr. Gurnah’s people may leave Africa but Africa never leaves them. At the start of “The Last Gift” (2011), we meet the displaced Abbas, who long ago “slipped away without saying a word to anyone and never went back.” In an English town he collapses, not by “a strike out of nowhere, more like the beast had slowly turned its head towards him, recognised him and then reached out to smother him.” As his novels switch scenes between colonial-era East Africa and the present day, Mr. Gurnah’s protagonists find that buried histories return to grab, shake and floor them. Faulkner’s over-quoted line about the past’s not even being past for once fits the bill.

That past never settles but remains in flux. Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel literature committee, remarked in his citation that in Mr. Gurnah’s work, “everything is shifting—memories, names, identities.” His fiction reveals a landscape of hybrid identities….

From his debut, “Memory of Departure” (1987), his exiled heroes tell stories of loss and change in order to adjust to their new English home—itself a place prey to the seductions of selective memory. Mr. Gurnah interrogates the baleful legacies of the colonial period, but never presents some eternal, and essential, clash of civilizations. On the contrary: Whether in Africa or Europe, former fixed points vanish. Bonds of love, friendship and even rivalry make boundaries crumble like eroding chalk cliffs. If his fiction measures “the gulf between cultures and continents,” as the Academy maintained, it also throws up bridges. Ms. Nasta argues that “one of Gurnah’s distinctive talents is in leading the reader away from often polarised notions of ‘difference.’”…

But Mr. Gurnah spurns nostalgia for a pristine homeland. In Zanzibar or overseas, his characters carry the psychic wounds left by Arab slavery, British and German plunder and violence, political vendettas and—a melancholy undercurrent—the exploitation of women and children. Relationships between African youngsters and European patrons hover, emblematically, between consent and coercion both in “Paradise” and “Afterlives.” In “Desertion” (2005), part of the plot evokes a taboo affair between an Englishman and a young Zanzibari woman in the early 1900s. It prompts reflections on “how one story contains many,” and how those entwined stories will “entangle us for all time.” The links that tie people and places together may also act as chains to weigh them down.

Besides, the worst betrayals happen close to home. “My father did not want me,” begins “Gravel Heart” (2017), a novel in which domestic secrets, political conflict and the intimate abuse of authority combine in the wake of “a series of important lies.” It flows in the lucid, polished and rhythmic prose that makes Mr. Gurnah’s fiction a consistent pleasure as well as a stage for untold histories….In Mr. Gurnah’s domain of capricious power, fluid selves and mingled destinies, truth is disputed and justice hard to find. Despite, or because of, that climate of uncertainty, there’s always one more story to be told.


Speak Your Mind