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.