Ways of writing – Navigating between hell and paradise in precolonial Africa, with Abdulrazak Gurnah

Originally from Zanzibar, the Briton Abdulrazak Gurnah is the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature. He is the author of a dozen novels, volumes of short stories and literary essays. The writer was recently in Paris on the occasion of the reissue of his three novels translated into French: Heaven, Farewell Zanzibar and Near the sea which was awarded in 2007 by the RFI-Témoins du monde prize. Meet.

Republished in French by the Parisian publisher Denoël and elsewhere, Heaven, Farewell Zanzibar, Near the sea, are three mature novels of the Zanzibari Nobel Prize. They give to read a subtle and evocative writing where mix the art of the born storyteller that is Gurnah and the narration all in folds and folds borrowed from the great masters of English letters, from Shakespeare to Rushdie, which the novelist has long taught alongside his career as a writer. The man is retired from the University of Kent, in Canterbury (England) where he served for nearly twenty years as a professor of English and postcolonial literature.

It was in 1968, when he was 18, that Gurnah arrived in England, fleeing his native island of Zanzibar, in the midst of post-independence turbulence. According to the author, writing was born during these first years of exile when he kept his diary to tell the nostalgia of the country, confiding in the white pages his frustrations, his despair in the face of a British hospitality rather harsh. ” The ambition to become a writer seemed to me at the time so out of reach that I did not dare to speak about it to anyone for several years, explains the novelist. Saying I want to be a writer seemed as outlandish a proposition as wanting to be an astronaut! »

Traumas of History

The proposal was not ultimately as extravagant as that, as evidenced by the Nobel Prize for Literature which came to crown this life dedicated to writing. Today, the laureate has ten novels to his credit, as well as short stories, volumes of essays on literature and a Rushdie dictionary, entitled Cambridge companion to Rushdievery popular among students of letters across the Channel.

If the first novels of Gurnah, published from the end of the 1980s, are inspired by the autobiographical experience of the author, the dramas of migration and exile, the work becomes, along the way, more sophisticated and ample, with individual stories inscribed within the traumas of History. The Swedish jury praised his ” penetrating and uncompromising analysis of the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees torn between cultures and continents “.

A somewhat simplistic commentary, which the author sometimes likes to qualify by drawing attention to the thousand other dimensions of his fiction. ” I like to believe that my books are also about human relationships. They tell how people live, how they learn to forgive, to be generous, without forgetting brutality and cruelty. I don’t just write about imperialism and colonialism. I explore the injustices perpetrated against children, against women, the humiliations we inflict on others. You know, novels are complex artifacts, which act on multiple dimensions. »

Story of exile and memory

Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah © Denoel

Fourth novel by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Heaven which in 1994 was part of the short list of the Booker Prize (British equivalent of the Goncourt), is a wonderful illustration of the narrative art of the novelist. It is a story of exile and memory, where the action is coupled with a reflection on the here and now. His narration proceeds by strata and sedimentation, mixing the small and the big story.

In Heaven, the story is told from the point of view of a 12-year-old teenager, named Yusuf, who leaves his native village to go live in the city where he learns, reluctantly, about the corruption of the world. The teenager will learn that his parents sold him to a pawnbroker whom he called “my uncle” for a long time. The theme of the novel is the loss of innocence, against a backdrop of violence and loss of bearings specific to periods of great socio-political upheaval.

Set in coastal East Africa at the end of the 19th century, Yusuf’s story brings together the dying pre-colonial world and the arrival of Europeans in Africa. We are in end-of-the-century Tanzania where power is in the process of passing from the hands of the Swahili merchant elite to the hands of the German conquerors who, after subjugating the coast, are in the process of taking control of the caravan trade, long dominated by Arabs. It is the twilight of the cosmopolitan civilization of caravans and coastal towns interconnected by trade.

This region of East Africa where I set my stories is connected to other coastal countries, namely the Somali coast, the Saudi coast, the Middle East, the West Indian states which have of a vast frontage on the Indian Ocean, tells Gurnah. The coastal civilization of East Africa is mixed, with Arab, Indian, Somalian components… The societies from which my characters come are bearers of these mixed cultures. These are cosmopolitan, fertile cultures, whose origins go back a long way in history. Making them known to the general public was my main motivation for writing the novel Paradis. »

“Apocalypse Now”

It is in an almost apocalyptic context of the end of East African commercial civilization that the action of Heaven, novel with an ironic title. The Paradise of Gurnah is riddled with the corruption of souls. Gurnah also breaks with the myth of paradise of postcolonial negritude, by staging a trading expedition where Yusuf’s caravan is taken over by hostile tribes and slavers.

Both a novel of ideas and a novel of actions, Heaven has been compared to In the heart of darkness of Conrad and the World is collapsing by Chinua Achebe. The story is not reduced here, however, to the seriousness of the remarks on the civilizational changes and the devastations which accompany them. A storyteller at heart, Gurnah knows that a novel must also appeal and reflect life in all its amplitude so that its message can touch the hearts of its readers, as the writer explained in his acceptance speech for the Prize. Nobel last December.

Novelists cannot fill their pages with stories and controversies, however stimulating and reassuring they may be. Insofar as fiction aims to explore human experience in its entirety, it is difficult to miss love, hate and our daily hypocrisies. So I, too, wrote about the different aspects of life. I tried to do it as honestly as possible so that both ugliness and virtue emerge and the human emerges, who is too often a prisoner of simplifications and stereotypes. When the mayonnaise sets, beauty is sometimes there. »

Beauty is indeed present in the pages of Heaven where Gurnah’s poetic narration of history, through tales of learning about the world as it goes or does not go, keeps readers in suspense, long after the end point.

Heaven, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Translated from English by Anne-Cécile Padoux. Editions Denoël and elsewhere, 280 pages, 20 euros.

Near the sea, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Translated from English by Sylvette Gleize. Editions Denoël and elsewhere, 371 pages, 22 euros.

Farewell Zanzibar, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Translated from English by Sylvette Gleize. Editions Denoël and elsewhere, 365 pages, 20 euros.

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Ways of writing – Navigating between hell and paradise in precolonial Africa, with Abdulrazak Gurnah