When Abdulrazak Gurnah won last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, he spoke about developing a way of looking that “makes room for frailty and weakness, for tenderness amid cruelty, and a capacity for kindness in unlooked for sources.”
The 73-year-old Gurnah, who grew up in Zanzibar, became only the second Black African writer—Wole Soyinka, of Nigeria, being the first, in 1986—to win literature’s top international award. Up until then his novels and short stories had been studiously ignored by most American publishers. That suddenly changed with his 10th novel, the forthcoming Afterlives, which provoked a bidding war and ultimately led to its being snagged by Riverhead Books.
In its calibrated capaciousness, Afterlives enfolds many of the themes which Gurnah has interrogated over the years. There is a bludgeoning colonial project that seduces certain Africans as much as it repels them; lives rent asunder by the chaos of war, exile, return from exile; and the trauma of it all passed down to a subsequent generation.
The spare, descriptive prose, which is reminiscent of Alex Haley’s Roots, recounts the parallel destinies of two young African men—Hamza and Ilyas—who enlist in the German Army during World War I to fight the British for its interests in East Africa. It is Hamza’s story that dominates, while Ilyas’s provides a haunting coda.
Both men join different companies of the Schutztruppe—a German-commanded army of African mercenaries—known in local Kiswahili parlance as the askari. A feature of Gurnah’s writing is the way that he seasons his story with African, Arabic, and German words, the meaning of which can usually be divined through their context. For instance, when Hamza undergoes basic training for the Schutztruppe, the African drill sergeant berates his company for being “a bunch of washenzi,” and orders them not to swing their hips “like a shoga.” Unlike here, Gurnah does not italicize these words, treating them as simply part of a melting pot of language.
Gurnah, who, along with his brother, was forced to flee Zanzibar following the 1964 revolution, arrived in England as a refugee at the age of 20. His novels, though often set in England, where he has lived for more than 50 years, keep returning to his homeland, which he has said “asserts itself in his imagination, even when he deliberately tries to set his stories elsewhere.”
Afterlives recalls Gurnah’s most famous novel, Paradise (1984), which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Both are set in the years leading up to and during World War I as the German Army sweeps through Tanzania. What differentiates Afterlives is its intense examination of the personal relations between occupier and occupied.
Afterlives comes most vividly to life when Hamza’s German commanding officer makes him his personal servant. This appointment is a prickly one, as it sets Hamza at odds with the rest of the askari, while also calling into question the Oberleutnant’s reasons for selecting him in the first place. The relationship starts off akin to the one in Billy Budd, with the Oberleutnant eyeing Hamza beadily at every opportunity as if he is undressing him with his eyes. But bit by bit Gurnah deftly reveals something much deeper going on, which is born out of the Oberleutnant’s own tragic wartime experience.
Later in the novel, when Hamza is recovering from a near-fatal sword wound, there is another encounter, this time with a German pastor, which brings into focus how tritely the African landscape is viewed through European eyes. “It is a place of no significance whatsoever in the history of human achievement or endeavor,” says the pastor. “You could tear this page out of human history and it would not make a difference to anything.”
What Gurnah does brilliantly is use fiction to put flesh on the bones of African histories that would otherwise be all but forgotten. By bringing to life a character like Hamza, he reveals how humble respect for the most basic human needs is an essential part of resilience. The war is over and, after years of errance, Hamza finally returns home to his small, ramshackle town: “Every morning he woke with surprise that he had slept so long and counted the hours of undisturbed sleep like a miser shopkeeper counting the pennies as they accumulated in his cash box.”
Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire-based freelance arts-and-entertainment writer for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times