When one publisher recommends the work of another, you know you’re likely to be on to a good thing. And so, when Lynette Lisk, commissioning editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, told me that she admired the work of Bloomsbury-published Abdulrazak Gurnah, I lost no time in looking him up.
Spanning 100 years, Gurnah’s 2005 novel Desertion weaves together the threads that lead a young Tanzanian man, Rashid, to leave his homeland in the early sixties and make his life in England. It starts in the dying months of the 19th century, with the scandalous love affair of Rashid’s grandparents – an unconventional English traveller and a shy local woman – before darting forward to Rashid’s childhood in the mid-20th century and on past the declaration of Tanzania’s independence to his lonely and wistful middle age. Steered by Rashid himself, who writes much of the story, with an interjection from his brother Amin and a poem from his sister Farida, the narrative brims with questions and observations about identity, nationality, belonging and love.
Gurnah is a writer with an eye for the thousand little human foibles that can combine to clog up and alter the course of a life. Whether he is describing Rashid’s great-grandfather Hassanali’s hesitance and self-effacement, born out of the ridicule he recognises in the eyes of those who visit his shop, the double-think that allows the British colonisers to despise corruption in others and yet practise it themselves, or the rituals and cruelty that stand in for intimacy between siblings, Gurnah is forever revealing the processes that mould and set personalities.
This perceptiveness extends to larger social structures too. Through the patterns Gurnah traces, we learn the limitations of the social codes surrounding courtship marriage that stymie Rashid’s grandmother’s life and the effect of the gross under-provision of schools for girls. Crucially, however, these observations are not delivered through authorial tirades but lived and enacted by the characters so that it is only when we sit back and think about the story that we realise the wider implications of what we are reading.
Alongside this runs a lively discussion about storytelling, which erupts into the narrative as Rashid begins to question the version of events he presents. Speculating, contradicting himself and imagining where he does not know, Rashid rehearses his family’s history, increasingly aware of the possibilities in fiction, both in the choices he makes as a writer and in the scope the form offers to process, assimilate and remake the past.
Fiction also presents Gurnah with the opportunity to unpack the legacy of colonialism in a far more inventive and impactful way than essays might afford. While his portrait of the British Victorians sitting on the veranda swapping racist ideology well into the night ‘to make themselves feel significant and present in the world’ is compelling, his description of Rashid’s lonely arrival in a Britain leaves a lasting impression. It also buys him the leverage to reach forward in time and challenge assumptions that still underpin much of social interaction today:
‘In time I drifted into a tolerable alienness. Living day to day, this alienness became a kind of emblem, indeterminate about its origins. Soon I began to say black people and white people, like everyone else, uttering the lie with increasing ease, conceding the sameness of our difference, deferring to a deadening vision of a racialised world. For by agreeing to be black and white, we also agree to limit the complexity of possibility, we agree to mendacities that for centuries served and will continue to serve crude hungers for power and pathological self-affirmations.’
For all its sociological and historical observations, though, this is first and foremost an engrossing and deeply moving novel. It is a book to get lost in, led by an expert storyteller, who wins our trust and piques our interest from the very first page. I’ll be looking up more of Gurnah’s works when this year’s literary adventures are over. Wonderful.
Desertion by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Bloomsbury, 2005)