The winner of the Nobel Price in Literature 2021 transports us with “Paradise” to an intricately stratified East African society at the turn of the 20th century. Making us well aware of the increasingly pervasive European presence, the novel brings our attention to the complex power relations in a multicultural world prior to European dominance.
Image: Hu Chen.
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s “Paradise” evolves around the coming of age of Yusuf, a twelve-year-old boy living with his parents in Kawa, an inland town of Tanzania with a particularity that marks his life: he and his family are strangers in this town. They arrived attracted by the promise of wealth represented by the railway station built there by the Germans, but that turned out to be nothing more than an illusion; another failed business endeavor of his father, a dream quickly turned into a nightmare that would seal young Yusuf’s fate. Pawned to his father’s creditor, a rich Arab merchant, Yusuf’s childhood comes abruptly to an end with his father’s bankruptcy and his actual journey begins: a way into adulthood across a breathtaking East African landscape, first to the sophisticated home of the merchant in the coastal city, later a long way to the hinterland of the country, the route of the old merchant caravans to the feared, enigmatic lakes and their “wild” people.
This “wildness” is however only one marker of otherness among a wide range of differentiations made in a society that is as highly stratified as diverse, shaped by locals and immigrants from the most different backgrounds, who speak different languages, who believe in different gods, and who are always in movement: back and forth across a landscape that serves in its contrasts as an inexorable reflexion of the same unfathomable social boundaries. While the coastal town represents the highest level of civilization, the deeper the journey leads into the hinterland, the stranger and uncannier landscape and people seem to become. The awareness of these differences, the realization of the experience of being the despicable “other” already in Kawa, as an invisible barrier between his father and mother, him and the children of the Indian merchants, and suddenly between him and the seyyid, his “master” – formerly known to him for years as “Uncle Aziz” – are the start of Yusuf’s awakening into adulthood. Yusuf’s coming of ages melds thus a geographical discovery of the country with the realization of its social harshness, a reality that leaves the unprivileged without voice and agency.
The hierarchies built on the basis of ethnical background, caste, wealth, religion, and social position are overwhelming and deceitful at once. The same man who believes himself superior can be despised at any time by others for the most diverse reasons; the Europeans, especially the Germans, as the ultimate strangers, find their place as the embodiment of Gog and Magog in this constellation. But Yusuf knows them mostly rather from hearsay. His world, after the shock of the sudden separation from his beloved mother, still appears to have something beautiful, peaceful, generous for him: his solace is the merchant’s beautiful garden, a dream from which he is not able to awake too soon. Only his silences, his premonitory nightmares, the “terror of his abandonment”, and what he feels and sees in his dreams as his personified “cowardice” never leave him and haunt him even fiercer after he discovers love. And while he works, observes, learns, grows, and dreams under the amazing stars in the East African night, he reflects on the meaning of being alive, of being dead, of being a kifa urongo, a living dead in a state of slavery. Yusuf finally becomes a young man, leaving all dreams and nightmares behind him with a first act of self-determination in his life.
About the author
Born in 1948 in the former Sultanate of Zanzibar, Abdulrazak Gurnah is an Emeritus Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2021 “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”*
Paradise is a historical novel first published in 1994 by Hamish Hamilton in London, and was nominated for the Booker Prize and the Whitebread Prize for Fiction.
*The Nobel Prize in Literature 2021. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2021. Thu. 14 Oct 2021. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2021/summary/>