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Review: Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel ‘Afterlives’

On the Shelf


By Abdulrazak Gurnah
Riverhead: 320 pages, $28

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We read books in translation, in part, to learn about other cultures. The best of them take us beyond literary tourism and into the history that shaped those cultures — the good, bad and ugly. Often it’s the shame and wreckage left behind by colonialism, as in Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah’s new novel “Afterlives,” in which the horrors of Germany’s imperial takeover of vast swaths of Africa resulted in the first genocide of the 20th century.

Gurnah, born on Tanzania’s province of Zanzibar, fled political unrest for the United Kingdom in 1964 as a teenager. He began writing in English, rather than his first language of Swahili, adding a layer in his careerlong drive to reveal the hybridity inherent in migration — which Gurnah believes is fundamental to the modern world. While his books may center on particular African communities and events, what has earned him the highest of accolades is his attention to universality.

“Afterlives” covers decades in the lives of its three main characters, Khalifa, Afiya and Ilyas. They each experience various kinds of deprivation, salvation and injustice in the aftermath of colonialist brutality. The novel also hews close to some of the German occupiers. It would be easy to make them caricatures, a mass of Colonel Klink-like goose-steppers; the material is all there, from their calling Tanganyika “Deutsch Ost-Afrika” to their schools and “crenellated fortresses.”

But Gurnah not only holds himself back from lampooning the Germans — he also makes sure we see how desirable their station could seem to the young men who made up their Schutztruppe, African troops who fought against their own countrymen. In Namibia, the 1904 German-driven genocide against the Hereros, Namas and Sans leaves 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 nearly as dire — and equally debilitating.

How, then, are the kind merchant Khalifa, his childhood friend Ilyas and Ilyas’ baby sister Afiya ever to walk with strength and confidence? Khalifa, who immigrates to Mombasa, Kenya, promises Ilyas he will care for Afiya. And he does, although by the time she manages to escape her village servitude after a savage beating, she’s already worn down — and the perfect victim for Khalifa’s pious Muslim wife. Gurnah, the son of a Yemeni immigrant to Tanzania, doesn’t suffer zealots of any creed gladly.

Ilyas, meanwhile, is off to war, conscripted into the Schutztruppe to fight the British in World War I. He learns to appreciate Goethe and Schiller, even as his commanders lay waste to his country and culture. The book’s Oberleutnant sexually abuses a fellow African conscript, Hamza — a man we come very quickly to learn we haven’t seen the last of.

Back in Kenya, Khalifa and Afiya long for the presence of Ilyas, who is absent from their lives but remains a hovering presence. He is Chekhov’s gun as character: We know from Gurnah’s bread crumbs that Ilyas will matter to Hamza. But how? Anyone familiar with Gurnah’s work knows that he bides his time, withholding the meaning of a moment because his often-displaced characters don’t know how to express it — or can’t. “Afterlives” follows its long arc to a point where reclamation is possible, where recognition of full personhood can once again be restored.

The second half of the novel describes how a battle-weary Hamza comes to meet and marry Afiya; that’s not a spoiler. The delicate evolution of their relationship provides a measure of hope and tenderness — but perhaps even more important, a path to that reclamation of full humanity. Once they are able, Hamza and Afiya begin a search for her brother, a search that might seem agonizing to a reader accustomed to strong Wi-Fi and instant screen chat.

Years pass between sending a letter and receiving a response; then World War II interrupts family life. Hamza and Afiya’s son, also named Ilyas, enlists under the new British Tanzanian administration. Not until the younger Ilyas is in middle age and has moved to Germany for a career in broadcasting does he finally learn about the rest of his uncle’s life.

In less than 20 pages, Gurnah brings all these afterlives to a closure simultaneously ripe with meaning and rotten with evil. Ilyas Hassan changed his name to Elias Essen and made a life in Berlin. As his nephew reads the details of Elias’ adulthood, the full scope of Germany’s 20th century horrors rises from the page like the stench in the African killing fields. An archivist says to the nephew, advising him about travel expenses: “Our bureaucracy is very thorough about funds … oh, about everything. German bureaucracy is the envy of the world.” And, directing him to a particular city: “It was a lovely town but I have not been there since the war.”

Even after two genocides and two global conflicts, some people still wear blinders obscuring their own history. Gurnah, on the other hand, sees in all directions at once. He constructs his latest magnificent novel so clearly and carefully that when his very last lines bring us back to love and kindness, we’re ready to pay attention. It’s too late for Elias, but perhaps not for Ilyas. Or the rest of us.

Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

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