On the shelf
By Abdulrazak Gurnah
Riverhead: 320 pages, $28
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We read partially translated books to learn about other cultures. The best of them take us beyond literary tourism and into the history that has shaped these cultures – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Often it is the shame and rubble left in its wake by colonialism, as in Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah’s new novel Afterlives, which chronicles the horrors of Germany’s imperial takeover of large parts of Africa into the first genocide of the 20th centuryth Century.
Born in the Tanzanian province of Zanzibar, Gurnah fled political unrest to Britain in 1964 as a teenager. He began writing in English instead of his native Swahili, adding another layer to his career-long quest to uncover the inherent hybridity of migration—which Gurnah believes is fundamental to the modern world. While his books may focus on specific African communities and events, his attention to universality has earned him the highest honors.
Afterlives spans decades in the lives of its three main characters, Khalifa, Afiya, and Ilyas. They all experience different kinds of deprivation, redemption and injustice after colonial brutality. The novel also gets closer to some of the German occupiers. It would be easy to caricature, a mass of Colonel Klink-esque gossips; the material is all there, from their designation Tanganyika “German East Africa” to their schools and “merloned fortresses”.
But Gurnah not only refrains from mocking the Germans – he also makes sure we see how desirable their position might seem to the young men who made up their position protection force, African troops fighting against their own countrymen. In Namibia, the German-sponsored genocide of the Hereros, Namas and Sans in 1904 left the ground beneath everyone’s feet politically and morally broken and literally filled with blood and bones. Across the continent in what was then Tanganyika, the atrocities are almost as bad — and just as debilitating.
How are friendly merchant Khalifa, his childhood friend Ilyas, and Ilyas’ little sister Afiya ever going to walk with strength and confidence? Khalifa, who is emigrating to Mombasa, Kenya, promises Ilyas that he will take care of Afiya. And he does, although by the time she manages to escape her village bondage after brutal beatings, she is already exhausted – and the perfect victim for Khalifa’s devout Muslim wife. Gurnah, the son of a Yemeni immigrant to Tanzania, does not tolerate zealots of all faiths.
Meanwhile, Ilyas goes to war and is drafted protection force to fight against the British in World War I. He learns to appreciate Goethe and Schiller, even when his commanders devastate his country and its culture. The books lieutenant abuses another African conscript, Hamza – a man we learn very quickly we haven’t seen the last of.
Back in Kenya, Khalifa and Afiya yearn for the presence of Ilyas, who is absent from their lives but remains a floating presence. He is Chekhov’s weapon as a character: we know from Gurnah’s breadcrumbs that Ilyas will be important to Hamza. But how? Anyone familiar with Gurnah’s work knows that he bids his time and withholds the meaning of a moment because his often-delayed characters don’t know how to — or can’t — express it. “Afterlives” follows its long arc to a point where reclamation is possible, where full personality recognition can be restored.
The second half of the novel describes how a battle-weary Hamza comes to meet and marry Afiya; this is not a spoiler. The delicate trajectory of their relationship offers a measure of hope and tenderness—but perhaps more importantly, a path toward that full humanity recapture. Once they are able, Hamza and Afiya begin a search for their brother, a quest that may seem agonizing to a reader accustomed to strong Wi-Fi and instant screen chat.
Years pass between sending a letter and receiving a reply; then the Second World War interrupts family life. Hamza and Afiya’s son, also named Ilyas, joins the new British-Tanzanian government. Only when the younger Ilyas is middle-aged and has moved to Germany for a career in radio does he finally learn about the future life of his uncle.
In less than 20 pages, Gurnah brings all these afterlives to a conclusion, simultaneously full of meaning and tainted with evil. Ilyas Hassan changed his name to Elias Essen and made a living in Berlin. As his nephew reads the details of Elias’ adulthood, the full extent of Germany’s 20thth The horrors of the century rise from the side like the stench of the African battlefields. An archivist, advising the nephew on travel expenses, says: “Our bureaucracy is very thorough with funds… oh, with everything. The German bureaucracy is the envy of the world.” And refer him to a specific city: “It was a beautiful city, but I haven’t been there since the war.”
Even after two genocides and two global conflicts, some people still wear blinders that obscure their own history. Gurnah, on the other hand, sees in all directions at once. He constructs his latest great novel so clearly and carefully that we are prepared to pay attention when his very last lines bring us back to love and kindness. It’s too late for Elias, but maybe not for Ilyas. Or the rest of us.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-08-23/review-love-after-atrocity-a-nobel-winners-new-novel-crystallizes-the-pain-of-colonialism Review: Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel ‘Afterlives’