Abdulrazak Gurnah left Zanzibar a few years after the violent revolution of 1964, when the constitutional sultanate installed by the departing British was overthrown. It was a time, in Gurnah’s words, of ‘state terror and calculated humiliations’: as many as 17,000 people were killed, the Omani-descended ruling elite was expelled, and thousands were imprisoned; the Revolutionary Council nationalised the clove plantations and trading companies, bringing the economy to a standstill. The Britain that Gurnah arrived in as an 18-year-old student was hardly hospitable, though: it was 1969, just after Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech, and just before the arrival of the Ugandan Asians triggered widespread panic about immigration. But he had broken Zanzibar’s laws to leave, and there was no going back. Since then, he has worked as an academic in Britain and Nigeria.
These biographical facts set the parameters for Gurnah’s fiction, from his first novel Memory of Departure (1987), in which a young man prepares to leave his East African coastal town as it gains independence, to Desertion, his seventh. Like many postcolonial novelists, he writes fiction with one foot in present-day Europe, and one in the lost world of his childhood: the Muslim culture of the spice coast, with its Arab, Persian and Indian influences. There are writers for whom lost homelands and hyphenated identities appear inspiring, even rather fun – Salman Rushdie, for example. But, perhaps inevitably, Gurnah’s experiences seem to have been devastating. The regrets and guilt of the exile, the divided loyalties of the colonial scholarship boy, prejudice and alienation in Britain: these are the constant themes of his novels, along with a nostalgic and sometimes lyrical attempt to re-create the life of the coast. As he explained in the Guardian last year, the strangeness of his new life ‘intensified the sense of a life left behind, of people casually and thoughtlessly abandoned, a place and a way of being lost to me for ever, as it seemed at the time’.
Desertion, appropriately enough, is a meditation on loss and abandonment. It begins in 1899, in a small town along the coast from Mombasa. On the way to the mosque one morning, Hassanali, a kind and timorous shopkeeper, is terrified by what he thinks must be a djinn or a ghoul looming up through the dawn light. On closer examination, it turns out to be ‘an ashen-complexioned man’, Martin Pearce, a disillusioned colonial, something of an Orientalist, who has been robbed and left to die in the wilderness by his Somali guides, and has staggered half-dead into town. Hassanali takes him into his home, gives him food and drink, and calls for the healer. The second chapter brings the first of many changes of perspective: from the dutiful, unassuming viewpoint of Hassanali to the bullish, empire-building manner of the local British official, Frederick Turner. Learning that an Englishman is lying at Hassanali’s house, Frederick barges in and claims the sick man. He assumes that the shopkeeper has robbed Martin, and threatens him with his riding crop: ‘If you’re lying to me, you black dog, I’ll whip the skin off your back.’ When Martin regains consciousness, he realises that the hospitable Hassanali has been wrongly impugned; and, being something of ‘an anti-empire wallah’, as Frederick puts it, he insists on returning to thank him. He eats a meal with the family, and is immediately fascinated by Rehana, Hassanali’s beautiful sister. Already, a hint of scandal surrounds Rehana: she has been deserted by her husband Azad, an Indian trader, who left for home on business and never returned. As he leaves the house, Martin’s mind is racing. ‘How could he find out about her? What did he want from her? Was she married? Was it right? How could he see her again? Did he dare?’
So the scene is set for a historical novel of a fairly familiar kind: lush and exotic, but with a modern sensibility, giving voice to the points of view excluded in the period, to the colonised as well as the coloniser. Rather like Gurnah’s Paradise (1994), in which a young boy from the coast, pawned to pay his father’s debts, accompanies a trading expedition into the interior, as the Europeans scramble for control of trade and the fertile highlands. Instead, nearly halfway through Desertion, we have ‘An Interruption’, which begins: ‘I don’t know how it would have happened. The unlikeliness of it defeats me. Yet I know it did happen, that Martin and Rehana became lovers.’ The narrator reveals himself as Rashid, who left Zanzibar as a teenager and now works at a university in England. He rehearses the various ways that Martin and Rehana could have begun their affair – another visit, an exchange of letters – but finds his imagination failing him. The second half of the novel is, primarily, the story of his upbringing in Zanzibar, and of another illicit love affair, between his own older brother, Amin, and Jamila, who is Rehana and Martin’s grandchild. There are many desertions: Martin, we learn, abandons Rehana to return to England, leaving her an alcoholic and another man’s mistress; Rashid leaves his family; and it always seems likely that Amin will have to give up Jamila, a divorced older woman from a family tainted, even two generations later, with Martin and Rehana’s scandal.
Gurnah is a professor of English and postcolonial literatures at Kent University, and it shows: not just because Rashid gives lectures on ‘race and sexuality in settler writing in Kenya’, and sometimes speaks in the argot of English studies (‘pared-down polarities’, ‘intertextual reference’). His novels often suggest that they are written in conscious imitation of various postcolonial classics. The timeframe of Memory of Departure, for instance, echoes A Grain of Wheat (1967) by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, an impressive novel set in the days preceding Kenyan independence, and looking back to the Mau Mau rebellion (Gurnah wrote a lucid introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition). Admiring Silence (1997), in which an angry, thwarted émigré returns home to Zanzibar, is very much in the vein of V.S. Naipaul’s brilliant and monstrous The Mimic Men (1967); though Gurnah doesn’t quite have Naipaul’s gift for lacerating elegance (few do). Gurnah can seem tentative or forced, not quite confident in his own voice, as if he has spent more time in the company of these strong precursors than is healthy for his own writing. Naipaul, in particular, seems a powerful and burdensome influence. ‘I had not meant to go on at such length about those early days in England,’ Rashid says in Desertion, after giving a few bleak Naipaulian vignettes of life as an overseas student in London. ‘After all, what was there to say that has not been said by so many others who had come before me.’
Gurnah’s novels also tend to deliver their historical and political messages too conveniently. Perhaps this is, again, an occupational hazard: it seems that the analysis has been done in advance. In Paradise a coastal man running a shop in the interior voices his concerns about the Europeans:
In their eyes we’re animals, and we can’t make them stop thinking this stupid thing for a long time. Do you know why they’re so strong? Because they’ve been feeding off the world for centuries . . . We’ll lose everything, including the way we live . . . And the young people will lose even more. One day they’ll make them spit on all that we know, and will make them recite their laws and their story of the world as if it were the holy word. When they come to write about us, what will they say? That we made slaves.
The keenness to put the argument makes Hussein less a character than a mouthpiece, an opportunity for ‘ignorant accounts of Africa written by arrogant Europeans’ to be challenged by ‘insider accounts that wrote back at them’, as Gurnah, writing as a critic, has described this tendency. Equally, in By the Sea (2001), a British immigration officer delivers a speech about bloodsucking economic migrants which could have appeared in the Daily Mail; however accurate as a statement of widely held opinion, it fails to convince as drama.
Desertion displays an academic’s self-consciousness about the story being told; and the sudden replacement of one cast of characters with another risks bucking the reader. But it is a well-judged form of self-consciousness, which ultimately pays dividends. The sophisticated historical detail and the slightly suspicious lushness of the first half are stripped away, almost involuntarily, to reveal the emotional kernel: a terribly sad family story. It’s true that Rashid’s experiences in London are familiar, but they bear retelling; Gurnah describes the hostility Rashid encounters with a hard-won honesty:
Like many people in similar circumstances, I began to look at myself with increasing dislike and dissatisfaction, to look at myself through their eyes. To think of myself as someone who deserved to be disliked. So at first I thought it was the way I spoke, that I was inept and clumsy, ignorant and tongue-tied, perhaps even transparently scheming, wanting too much to be liked. Those beaming, ingratiating smiles must have embarrassed everyone I talked to, because they had to struggle not to laugh. Then I thought it was the clothes I wore, which were cheap and ill-fitting and not as clean as they could be, and which perhaps made me look clownish and unbalanced.
The description of the life of a family of teachers in the years before Independence is appealing, without skimping on depth or frankness. Like By the Sea, but rather more convincingly, Desertion demonstrates both a nostalgic respect for a decorous and generous way of life, and a faint horror at the tyranny of small-minded social habits. Rashid’s response to the world around him is typical of a self-regarding intellectual teenager: ‘The place was stifling him, he said: the social obsequiousness, the medieval religiosity, the historical mendacities.’ But it is his gentle brother Amin, who stays behind, who has to make the stark accounting between family duty and his own happiness. When it comes to describing the terrors and privations of post-Independence rule, Gurnah chooses an indirect approach: Rashid gathers what he can from his family’s reticent, censored letters, and only towards the end of the novel reads his brother’s diary. By the Sea, in which the main character is tried by the Revolutionary Council and interned for several years, is less effective.
For a writer of Gurnah’s background, most aesthetic decisions are a potential minefield: how to bring a locale to life without pandering to cheap exoticism; how to be political without descending into agitprop; how to write for a metropolitan audience while remaining loyal to the world described; even basic technical questions, such as which Swahili words to translate, and which to leave to the reader. In Desertion, Gurnah has on the whole made these wisely, and very tactfully. And, though it may be difficult, there are rewards. In his Guardian piece, Gurnah explains that he came to the gradual realisation that his own story, of ‘being from one place and living in another’, was worth telling, in part because it was ‘one of the stories of our time’. Desertion does this story justice.