— Afterlives, by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Riverhead Books (2022)
Abdulrajak Gurnah was the 2021 Nobel Prize winner for Literature. His literary afterlife is just beginning. Born in Zanzibar, although writing in English, and living in England, he was virtually unknown among readers, even among many of the elite intellectuals of the literary world, despite being shortlisted for a Booker Prize with an earlier book and a few lesser prizes. Only one of his nine novels was still in print in the United States when he won.
There are no greater prizes than the Nobel for writers. The major reason: all the countries and languages of the world are The Swedish Academy’s beat. If you ever tune in online to watch the Award, at 7 AM [1 PM in Stockholm] that week in October, you will see more reporters with their mics and cameras at tripods than you have seen at any event. Almost every country has a reporter at the announcement (There are 193 countries in the UN) on the chance that their country might win — as Zanzibar did for the first time.
Afterlives is the latest novel Gurnah has published, a year ago in England but just recently in the United States. I know only a few of them but this one is typical and superb. A Gurnah image: men waiting at train stations, that overwhelming 20th Century person: the refugee.
Afterlives is essentially an historical novel, set in Africa and Germany starting in the first decade of the 20th Century and going (lightly) through WWII. It is, even, a short family saga novel as severed family connections begin this novel; a family separated more than once, connecting over time to bind and save each other. It ends with an historical discovery of identity, a missing family member gets known by the effort of a younger descendant. There is a superb last paragraph and sublime sentence that sticks the landing thematically.
The men are in wars and in business, but we see them off the battlefield, in relationships with other men (mostly). German officers as homoerotic — and turned on by cruelty. Matched by a village uncle who beats his niece “until he was satisfied” as she screams in pain, maimed for life. Gurnah knows the psychodynamics of socialized sadism.
To be able to read and do mathematics, abilities that enable a brother and sister to get away from their traditional village, is a marvelously-handled theme about the world’s move to modernity for so many. You have seldom read a Western novel in which business, the slow growth of a merchant’s business is seen as a way of human growth into full maturity. “[Every bit of Africa] belonged to Europeans,” someone says in this book. The steady work of helping a business succeed allows self-respect to counter the servile feeling of being colonized.
There is a wonderful portrayal of an officer obviously in repressed love with one of our protagonists whose faith in and love of our hero is contained in the gift of a book in German which resurfaces meaningfully in the last section. Gurnah also knows how love happens as
he writes of how the officer slowly wanted our hero around him when he was working for him and later, as the beaten girl, now a young woman, day by day keeps thinking about a young man who, in secret, is thinking about her. Love seeps in and we can identify in a novel set where most of us cannot identify except with imaginative fellow-feeling; with characters whose religion and compass is Muslim; with an unfamiliar bygone world but that we might have heard about, sea-changed, in our family histories. Zanzibar, Africa, Germany a long time ago and situations we haven’t lived become ours to feel.
Gurnah delivers. I recommend this novel and others of his. You will see the wider world differently and, as Philip Roth joked when I told him an early novel of his “changed my life” — “For the better, I hope.”
Review by Mark Kohut. Currently working on discovering Shepherdstown since 2014, Mark Kohut has built a career working in bookstores then in sales and marketing for major publishers. An avid amateur learner, he invites you to take classes at the Shepherd University Lifelong Learning Program (Shepherd.edu/LifelongLearning).By Mark Kohut