Afterlives. Abdulrazak Gurnah

In this column I would like to draw attention to Abdulrazak Gurnah. Abdulrazak Gurnah is a Tanzanian writer who lives and works in the United Kingdom. He was born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar (now part of present-day Tanzania) in 1948. Gurnah moved to the United Kingdom in the 1960s as a refugee from the Zanzibar Revolution. He initially studied at Christ Church College, Canterbury and then moved on to the University of Kent where he earned his PhD in 1982 with a thesis titled “Criteria in the Criticism of West African Fiction”. Alongside his work in academia, Gurnah is a writer and novelist. He is the author of many short stories and ten novels. While Gurnah’s first language is Swahili, his literary work is in English. Gurnah’s novels were received positively by critics, but they were not commercially successful. Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2021, "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents".

Though the last African winner was Toni Morrison 10 years ago, the choice of Abdulrazak was still a surprise. He was absent from bookmakers lists. This was enough to rouse my curiousity and read one of his novels. The only novel available in the bookshop was his novel Afterlives first published in Great Britain in 2020.

It is a historical novel situated in East Africa in the twentieth century. The Germans and the British and the French and the Belgians seek complete dominion of this part of Africa. There are two major storylines: one describing Hamza’s wanderings after being kidnapped by a German soldier to be a carrier. He is able to escape when the German troops lose ground in the battle with British troops. The second storyline is about Afiya, who is an orphan. The two storylines come together when Hamza arrives in the town where Afiya lives with her step parents. Afiya and Hamza fall in love and get married. A remaining storyline is the search for Afiya’s brother Ilyas, who joined the German army voluntarily. Afiya and Hamza’s son bears the same name as Ilyas. Gurnah is clearly a master storyteller. The book is written from an African perspective, all main characters are African. What gives the book a local flavour is his use of Swahili words and sentences.

Thus far I would like to recommend everybody interested in colonial history of east Africa to read this book. The last part of the book describes the quest to find Afiya’s brother Ilyas in Germany. They don’t find him, and it is assumed that he has been killed in an allied bombing in the Second World War. This last part is not very detailed and has a very fast pace compared to the first part. For me this makes the book unbalanced.

Afterlives has been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing 2021 and longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction 2021.

Hans van der Weide