The Nobel Prize for Literature awarded last year to Abdulrazak Gurnah opened the door to a new interest in African literature. In fact, the number of award-winning writers multiplied, namely: Paulina Chiziane, from Mozambique, won the Camões award; the Senegalese Boubacar Boris Diop, the Neustadt International Prize 2022; Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, also from Senegal, received the 2021 Goncourt Prize; and recently the Ivorian Véronique Tadjo won the LA Times Book Prize for Fiction, with her novel “En compagnie des hommes”.
As we can see, these are sunny years for African literature. However, you don’t have to be naive. In 1986, Wole Soyinka, from Nigeria, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I suggest you do a test: go, go out and look for the bookseller friend of his; walk through the bookstore area of your city and try to buy a Soyinka book. Don’t feel like going out? Well, do a little research on the internet which Argentine bookstores maintain books by the famous Nigerian in their catalogs. You will find little. Almost nothing.
Still, we shouldn’t despair. The important thing to know is that these ups and downs of prizes serve and make visible, but you have to sustain and fight over time against the great monster of the market.
What I want to say is that African literature has existed for a long time, it has a marvelous richness and maturity that, unfortunately, we are unaware of; and the origin of this ignorance is shared between our short sight and a Eurocentric and capitalist conception of the publishing world.
Long pages would, in turn, answer the question of whether Africa exists, just as we think of it.
Abdulrazak Gurnah has just won the Nobel Prize and is a good boost for African letters, in this case of English expression. Gurnah himself has lived in England for many years. Another big topic, the African diaspora.
Salamandra has just published, for the first time in Spanish, his renowned novel “Paraíso”, from 1994. The novel has an amazing cadence for these violent and fast times. The rhythm is continuous and serene, and when we want to remember, we are involved in a fascinating world, in a caravan (never better said) that begins on the roads and landscapes of Tanzania, but that is curled in the interior landscape of the human being.
The protagonist is Yusuf, just a boy, who is unaware that his father had to give him as payment of a debt to the powerful merchant Aziz. It is about slavery, yes, but Gurnah knows how to tell the story without sugaring reality, without excessively seasoning it.
We enter like this, in that naive ignorance of Yusuf and, with him, we walk and learn. If we look more closely, we will notice that “Paradise” has an analogy with the story of Joseph, which is narrated from chapter 37 of Genesis. And much closer is Sura 12 of the Koran: “Yusuf’s Surah”, where Yusuf is sold to a merchant, Aziz. The names in the Koran correspond to those in the novel.
Aziz’s caravan encounters different languages and cultures on its way. The Arab world and European colonization stand out. Likewise, the fears and suspicions of what we will later know as colonization are manifested: “I am afraid of the times that lie ahead,” said Hussein in a low voice, and this made Hamid let out a weak sigh. Everything is in an uproar. Those Europeans look very determined and, while fighting for the prosperity of the land, they will annihilate us all. You’d have to be stupid to think they’re here to do something good. It is not commerce that they seek, but land. And everything in it… including us.”
Yusuf, the poor little Swahili boy from the desert, as he is sometimes called, keeps a shop and also participates in a caravan. The old merchant realizes that times are changing: “But now that European dogs are everywhere there will be no more trips.” The coming colonial oppression is added to the Arab oppression and the customary oppression of the powerful. Yusuf, without a family, a slave without knowing that he is a slave, works relatively quietly for Aziz. There is a shop, there are friends, there is a mysterious garden in Aziz’s house with a mysterious mistress requesting it.
Again the story of the Bible and the Koran. Abdulrazak Gurnah gave his novel the title “Paradise”. A first interpretation could take us to the paradisiacal beaches of Zanzibar, where the Tanzanian author was born, but perhaps there is no direct relationship with the text. The mysterious garden, like some kind of Edenic garden? The trips? Love? Where is paradise in the novel “Paradise”?
Somehow, paradise is always a lost and sought after place. Past and future. However, with the cadence typical of his style, without naming it, without saying it, I would dare to say that paradise for Abdulrazak Gurnah is freedom.
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Abdulrazak Gurnah, Nobel Prize for Literature 2021