The still, silent heart: Abdulrazak Gurnah’s ‘Afterlives’ reviewed by Vaishna Roy

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s last novel is as much a chronicle of Germany’s violent colonial legacy, one among many such under-reported histories, as it is a story of ordinary lives

November 13, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Eddies: Daily life in Stonetown, Zanzibar.

Eddies: Daily life in Stonetown, Zanzibar.

There is a gentle quality to Abdulrazak Gurnah’s prose; it makes no linguistic leaps or pirouettes but simply sits down, draws a deep breath, and slowly unfurls the tale. Gradually you realise that even as Gurnah foregrounds ordinary people and their stories of struggle and love and fear, what you are actually hearing is the low hum of the continent. Africa looms over the book, overshadowing the individual players, thrusting its troubled history into your consciousness, creating a disquiet that lingers long after.

The Nobel Prize winning Gurnah’s latest work, Afterlives, set in an unidentified town in Tanzania on the eastern coastline, is not so much novel as narrative history, of the time when Germany occupied large tracts of east Africa before the beginning of World War I. This under-reported history of Deutsch-Ostafrika (German East Africa) has been Gurnah’s material across novels, recording bloodshed and displacement, the ever-shifting boundaries of power, nation, and home, and within that the still, silent heart of ordinary human lives.

Experience of otherness

It’s a post-colonial African novel but it’s also a chronicle of colonialism’s brutal past, one among many such that Europeans are yet to acknowledge and confront. Equally, Gurnah invests the African experience with an intuition that goes back further, like Chinua

Achebe, to something pristine, to something akin to a consciousness of being rooted in the land where life began. Yet, unlike in Achebe, the effect here is subdued, leached of passion, as if Gurnah is holding back, keeping his voice impersonal, almost an outsider’s. Does this come from having fled Zanzibar for the U.K. as a young man? Is this the “compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism” that the Nobel committee cites?

At any rate, his experience of otherness is distilled into the multiple ethnicities he captures, a chronicling of intermingled lives that puts the lie to the fashion of examining origins and religions to award labels of ‘belonging’. In his chosen arena of the rough-edged portside and shanty town, flotsam from India, Arabia and Persia, China, England and Germany comes ashore; mariners, merchants and soldiers meet. As he traces the sweep of ‘big’ history through the ‘little’ histories of Khalifa, Afiya, Hamza and Ilyas, the four lives interweaving with each other and with the larger picture in which they are microscopic pixels, they become bridges between the ruthless German army on the one hand and the ordinary African recruited into battle against his own on the other. Between the colossal colonial programme of loot and the little local merchants who feed off its wake. Between German savagery — “they cut off the head of the Wahehe leader Mkwawa and sent it to Germany as a trophy” — and the mindless viciousness of the schutztruppe askari, a band of African mercenaries with German officers.

Encompassing multitudes

The politics of dispossession is never overtly stated. Sometimes there’s the gentlest satire: “The German civilians were treated with the courtesies befitting citizens of an enlightened combatant nation… The local Africans, who were neither citizens nor members of a nation nor enlightened… were ignored or robbed.” Sometimes it’s something the German Oberleutnant says when he thinks Hamza is unconscious: “We lied and killed for this empire and we called it our Zivilisierungmission.” Sometimes it just hangs unsaid in the interstices.

The neutral tone reinforces the sense of reading history, as much as when the book wanders into the fine details of even minor characters. For instance, we are not just introduced to Khalifa’s father Qassim, a poor Gujarati Muslim, but we learn about his tax-collector father, his scholarship in a Bombay school, how he sailed across the Arabian Sea to the African coast for a book-keeping job, how he married an African woman and begat Khalifa. Qassim’s little memoir becomes a window into the immense history of cross-continental migration that has been playing out since prehistory.

Equally, the author is interested in the minutiae of his characters’ lives — what they eat, the insides of their homes, their prayer routine, the tiny group of musicians whose rehearsals you can hear from an open doorway, the kohl-eyed shekhiya summoned to talk to the ‘visitor’ who has entered Hamza’s son’s body — detailed with the eye of an anthropologist.

From quotidian lives to Europe slicing and dicing Africa “by mandate of the League of Nations”, the book strides, encompassing multitudes in the telling. And it’s perhaps the shifting perspective that universalises Gurnah’s writing. The stories of Khalifa, Afiya, Hamza and Ilyas don’t come from the margins but from within the core of a colonised nation that is yet seemingly at peace, celebrating an unfussy survival that defies the festering barbarisms of the colonial project.

One note plays out like a leitmotif, embodying the white man’s condescension. Hamza’s German benefactors gift him two books by philosopher-poets Friedrich Schiller and Heinrich Heine. But there is recurring incredulity and disbelief about Hamza’s capacity to fathom such lofty reflections. The implied scorn is left unchallenged. Instead, Hamza’s quiet insight, his actions, the everyday generosities of his life are offered up like a contrapuntal strand to the central philosophy of arrogance and greed that drove the great colonial enterprise.

Afterlives; Abdulrazak Gurnah, Bloomsbury Publishing, ₹699

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