Abdulrazak Gurnah

DR RATAN BHATTACHARJEE

Writing for him is an unending exploration. His depiction of the haunting image of man as we get in the first novel published by Bloomsbury By the Sea concentrates on one single word ‘Asylum’ and this is the essence of his writing. There he wrote: “Sometimes I think it is my fate to live in the wreckage and confusion of crumbling houses.”

Abdulrazak Gurnah,73 is the Tanzanian  author  of ten novels including  his masterpiece Paradise and Desertion in which we find as Anders Olsson, the Chair of the Nobel Committee said about his writing  “the uncompromising  and compassionate  penetration  of the effects of  colonialism.”

‘Abdulrazak Gurnah’s dedication to truth and his aversion to simplification is striking’ said the Nobel Committee about him after conferring the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature.  The UK-based Tanzanian Professor cum Novelist started his fictional journey with his novel Memory of Departure and in the novel, after novel, he uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world’.

In his Paradise, there is an obvious reference to Joseph Conrad in its portrayal of the innocent young hero Yusuf’s journey to the heart of darkness. Afterlives published recently was about Ilyas who was stolen from his parents by German colonial troops as a boy and returns to his village after years of fighting in a war against his own people.

The Guardian described this novel as ‘a compelling novel’. In Gurnah’s literary universe everything is shifting, – memories, names and identities because nothing is resolved and nothing gets a definite shape in reality.

He is well known for his salient ideas, elegant writing and ethical commitment. Gurnah came to the United Kingdom in 1968 at the age of 20 when Enoch Powell gave his famous lecture ‘Rivers of Blood’. Four years ago the Zanzibar revolution occurred leading to the union of Zanzibar and Tanganyika (today is known as Tanzania, where he was born in 1948.

A student of the Canterbury Christ Church University later admitted to the University of Kent where Abdulrazak got his Ph.D. and retired as Professor and Director of Graduate Studies after focusing on colonial and post-colonial writing in the manner of his fellow Laureate J.M Coetzee all through his academic and creative life.

His novels grapple with the subjects of the immigrant experience, displacement, memory and colonialism which are the areas of transnational and the trauma narrative drawing everyone’s attention nowadays. Gurnah was a prime mover in this respect. So we are not surprised that he won the Nobel Prize but he himself said in a tone of humbleness, “It was just great –it’s just a big prize and such a huge list of wonderful writers – I am still taking it in.”

This was sheer humbleness as his long-time editor Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury said Gurnah’s win was “Most deserved”. Gurnah is as important a writer as Chinua Achebe and his writing is particularly beautiful and grave and also humorous, kind and sensitive.

His Paradise where we see a comparison with published in 1994 told the story of a boy growing up in Tanzania in the early 20th century and was nominated for the Booker Prize which was a breakthrough for him as a novelist. In all his novels we see how he recoiled from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world.

His characters find themselves in hiatus between culture and continents, between a life that was and life emerging. Maya Jaggi an eminent critic and winner of the 2021 Costa Prize Judge gave a huge encomium for Gurnah in his interview for the Guardian: “He is a powerful and nuanced writer whose elliptical lyricism counters the lies of imperial history imposed when he was a child in east Africa. His subtle oeuvre is as robust about the brutal flaws of the mercantile culture he left as the atrocities of British and German colonialism” ‘What is truth? If not asked I know, if asked I know not’, said Pilate on the fructification of Jesus.

This question of Truth is the essence of all the novels of Abdulrazak Gurnah. Most appealing is the description of the ‘insecure state that can never be resolved.’ In an interview given in 2016, he did not fully agree that he is a writer of post-colonial or World literature,” I would not use any of those words, I wouldn’t call myself a something writer of any kind’ because he was not sure of it. But this aspect is highlighted by the Nobel Committee and he became the first black African author to have won the Award since Wole Soyinka in 1986 and the first black writer to win since Toni Morrison in 1993.

Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee is a columnist and poet based in Kolkata. He can be reached at:  profratanbhattacharjee@gmail.com. 

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