Nobel Prize Winner Abdulrazak Gurnah: Admiring Silence

This year’s Nobel Prize winner (in Literature) caught me by surprise – and, judging by the general reaction, I was not the only one! I’m always pleased when I can extend my repertoire, however, so I somewhat randomly (and very quickly) picked up something off the shelf at my university library, while publishers were still scrabbling to reissue his novels.

Admiring Silence was published in 1996, the author’s fifth novel, and was generally well-received at the time, although it never won any literary prizes nor made any shortlists. The author is preoccupied with the issue of cultural identity, emigration and immigration, and the legacies of colonialism (I understand that these are recurring themes in his work). I wonder if his work feels more topical now than it might have done in the mid 1990s, but what struck me is that he does not mince his words. His descriptions of racism and post-colonial politics, both in Britain and in his native Tanzania, spare no one. I am surprised they did not cause more of an uproar or a debate at the time, but they seem to presage the divided post-Brexit country we are living in now.

The ruins are one of the many things which make England a nation, along with a certain over-confident, hedonist cynicism which passes for sophistication and street-wisdom. Because the England of those ruins does not exist any more… Not the Englnad which was luminous in the dark, and which gave the world the steam railway and the Greenwhich Meridian and penicillin, all invented by Scots in exile. Not the England whose stories of the world brought us into being… People even flinch guiltily when they say England, afraid that others will think them ranting, nationalist, racist fascists. And when her murky, free-booting history comes up for observation, Scots and Irish voices quietly forgive themselves for their part in those rousing adventures, and remind anyone interested of their own deprivations under England’s colonial heel.

Well, with paragraphs like these, I am surprised that the right-wing press have not cancelled him and derided his Nobel Prize win? Could it be that they do not read that kind of literature? Of course, you could also argue that these are not necessarily the opinions of the author, but of the narrator, who might resemble the author in biographical detail, but is clearly quite a difficult, conflicted sort of person.

He is a middle-aged man from Zanzibar who fled to England as a young man in the early 1960s, during the troubled period following Tanzania’s independence. He has ‘settled’ in the UK, teaches at a local school, lives with his English partner Emma, with whom he has a daughter, and puts up with her rather disapproving (and racist) parents. But he has never been quite truthful either with Emma (he cannot resist giving her different versions of the stories of his life and family), or with his family back in Zanzibar (he hasn’t even told them about Emma).

I realized with small stabs of shame afterwards that I had embellished my story to make it less messy, and had fabricated details where these had escaped me. The shame was intense for a few minutes, but it soon passed and I became used to my lies. It made me happy, and above all it made her happy.

Following a bit of a health scare (and a becalming of the political situation in Tanzania), he decides to go back to his home country and see his family once more. His mother wants to marry him off, the rest of the family (and the ‘more liberal and progressive’ current government) hope to lure him back with a job and the chance to rebuild the country.

However, our narrator soon discovers that he no longer belongs to that ‘home country’ either. He is ruthless when it comes to portraying the people he left behind, or analysing the social and political situation, the sense of ‘victimhood’ and blaming the colonial past for any present failures. At the same time, he is subjected to that dilemma that any immigrant faces at some point. One of the government ministers points out the advantages of returning among his own people, but the truth is that after twenty years of exile, the sense of belonging has been atrophied:

…we need you here. Forgive me for saying this, but they don’t need you there. They have enough of their own people to do whatever is necessary, and sooner or later they will say that they have no use for you. Then you will find yourself in an alien land that is unable to resist mocking people of our kind. If you come back, you’ll be with your own people, of your own religion, who speak your own language. What you do will have meaning and a place in the world you know. You’ll be with your family. You’ll matter, and what you do will matter. Everything that you have learned there will be of benefit to us. It will make a difference here, rather than being… another anonymous contribution to the petty comfort and well-being of a society that does not care for you.

Author photo from Open Democracy.

It is not just the inadequate infrastructure or the visible corruption that puts him off returning. His mediocre life in England, a partner that seems to be pulling away from him, a daughter who has grown up and no longer needs him… there doesn’t seem to be that much keeping him in the UK either. He realises that what he feels for England is ‘disappointed love’ – an aspirational culture that he was raised to view with respect, but which did not quite live up to expectations when seen from up close. His storytelling is the only way in which he can make sense of his fractured identity – retelling, reaffirming, recreating… because memory is treacherous and the past is slippery and open to interpretation. The author confounds readers’ expectations too: most of the book is in dialogue and moves at a clip (often sarcastic), rather than slow, languorous descriptions of the paradise island that we (and the narrator’s ‘father-in-law’) might associate with Zanzibar.

I could relate to so much in this book about displacement and reinvention, and will certainly read more by Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Nobel Prize Winners Read and Unread

I’ve never placed a bet on the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I’ve taught myself not to have any expectations. I’m merely pleased or displeased (and there are different levels for both – dare I call them tiers? – sorry, bad joke, as UK residents will tell me). Occasionally, I’m very puzzled. However, I’m always happy when poetry gets recognised, as it tends to be underrepresented, and I’ve read and admired Louise Glück before. So I was slightly surprised but not at all disappointed.

Nevertheless, this post is about Nobel Prize winners of the past. I brazenly stole the idea from Susana, who posted what she thought of certain past Nobel Prize winners. Which got me wondering how many of them I have on my shelves… the answer is twenty, see picture below (I am currently unable to locate my T.S. Eliot, but know it’s in the house somewhere).

I know quite a few more lurk on my parents’ shelves or in boxes somewhere in their house. This got me wondering further which of the Nobel winners I’ve read over the course of my life, and whether I read them because they were winners.

I think I can safely say most of the ones I have on my shelf were discovered in another context, often before they won the Nobel Prize or before I realised that they had. Bunin or Gide, for example, caught me by surprise, I’d forgotten that they ever won it. There is one exception: one author that I started reading after she won the Nobel Prize and after I read her acceptance speech. You might find it surprising, because she comes from the same country as I do originally: Herta Müller. She was initially banned in Communist Romania, partly because of her militant activism for freedom of speech and partly because she dared to emigrate. Even after the fall of Communism, she remained unpopular in Romania, accused of exaggerating her persecution, or of ‘fouling the nest’ (very much like Thomas Bernhard in Austria). However, I have heard her speak of Romania and in particular about the Romanian language, and I detected much affection and respect for the land and its culture. It’s only the political system and those in power that she disagreed with – as we all did, but she was braver than most in opposing it.

My favourites among these? Camus, Canetti, Tokarczuk (although I’ve only read two of her books thus far), Herta Müller, Szymborska and Oe Kenzaburo. But I haven’t read Naguib Mahfouz yet (he was supposed to be one of my #1953Club reads, but I ran out of time) or Saramago.

Of the 117 winners, most fall into the category: ‘read a few things by them, don’t own anything‘. Some of them were more popular with my parents’ generation, so I read them in my childhood/adolescence and then they simply faded out of view (Romain Rolland, Pearl Buck, Anatole France and Galsworthy, for example). With others, I’ve read plenty but they were easily available in libraries, so I never felt the urge to buy my own: Saul Bellow, Kipling, Nadine Gordimer, Hesse, G.B. Shaw, Pinter, Golding, Marquez. A few I simply did not want to take further than one book: sorry, Grazia Deledda, Roger Martin Du Gard, Sienkewicz or Patrick White. But there are some in this category that I’m simply not sure why they have no presence on my shelves. I could certainly envisage spending money on them at some point in the future: Toni Morrison, Thomas Mann, Pirandello, Elfriede Jelinek, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz.

The final category are the Great Unread. 37 of the 117 prize winners, so about a third. I notice they are mainly the Scandinavians (I have to admit there is a gap in my knowledge there, but perhaps also because not a lot have been translated): Bjørnstjerne Martinus Bjørnson, Mommsen, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, Erik Axel Karlfeldt and so on. Another big gap in my knowledge are those writing in the Spanish language. I’ve never even heard of most of them, let alone read them: Jacinto Benavente, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Asturias, Vicente Aleixandre – or, I may have heard of them but never quite got around to reading them, like Gabriela Mistral. Italians are also a bit of blind spot for me: Eugenio Montale, Dario Fo, Carducci. And there is one French writer that I have never even attempted – and I’m not quite sure why. I just assumed he would not be my cup of tea: Le Clézio.

How have you fared with Nobel Prize winning writers? Meh or yay? And have you discovered any cultural blind spots, such as I seem to have?

Reading Both Sides: Egyptian and Israeli Literature

I’ve recently read my first Egyptian novel and my first Israeli crime novel, although this was coincidence rather than a deliberate attempt to read across both sides of a long-standing conflict in the Middle East. Unlike the works of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, however, neither of the two books were political, although they both paint portraits of rapidly changing societies with many cracks beneath the surface.

mahfouz_postcardNaguib Mahfouz: The Beginning and the End

Mahfouz is the only Arabic-speaking winner of the Nobel Literature Prize (in 1988). He almost single-handedly modernised Egyptian literature, introducing themes such as politics, existentialism, the voice of the dispossessed, as well as cinematic techniques to his storytelling. This novel is the story of the downfall of a Cairo family in the 1930s, an account of their struggle to survive and make ends meet following the death of the father, a petty government bureaucrat. Although the children are almost fully grown, their efforts to earn money and help the rest of them rise from poverty are beset with difficulties every step of the way.

I was not overly impressed with the book, which reads like a soap opera, until I considered how revolutionary it must have been for its period. The author gives us an unvarnished picture of Egyptian society at a particular point in time: the 1930s and 1940s. We see the corruption and machinations of the Egyptian bureaucracy, its education system, the plotting to marry off daughters, the dangers of women losing their virginity. Yet, although all this societal constraints seem to be suffocating the protagonists, Mahfouz makes no bones about laying an equal share of the blame upon them. Their weaknesses, lack of restraint, selfish behaviours, self-justifications all contribute to the tragic outcomes.

I have not read his other books, but I understand that Mahfouz is highly regarded precisely not only for modernising the language of fiction but also for his detailed examination of daily events in the life of middle-class families, in a society which has undergone major changes over the course of a few decades. It’s this translation of major political events into small everyday happenings and interpretations, this fresco of a vanishing way of life, which makes his work so valuable within his own cultural context. But his family sagas of greed, lies, misguided idealism and disappointments also touch universal themes.

MishaniD. A. Mishani: A Possibility of Violence

A bomb planted in a suitcase in present-day Tel Aviv – this has all of the hallmarks of a political thriller, but it turns out to be a much more personal story of revenge, confusion, parental love and fear. The style could not be more different from Mahfouz: almost clinically detached, sober, simple and precise language. Emotion is still there, but well concealed and tightly controlled throughout.

Mishani is a former editor and specialist of crime fiction, and he uses all the usual crime tropes well in his work. This is clearly a book designed to entertain rather than create a polemical debate. Yet this is not a typical police procedural: we catch glimpses of the complex environment that the police have to operate under in Israel today. Apparently, the police are universally reviled by all ethnic groups living within the borders of Israel, even by those citizens who revere the army. Although the author eschews political views in this book, there are echoes of the tensions between different subgroups within society, rumblings about the way in which Filipino care workers are treated and regarded in this country made up almost entirely of immigrants.