Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah – Book Review

Published by: Bloomsbury 
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 288 pages
Format: audiobook
Purchased my copy from the Rich Humanoid’s Audio-Book-Store-Place. 

Author Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents” – that ability to cut through the noise and speak with truth about the effects of colonialism is evident in his latest of ten novels, Afterlives. A riveting work, Gurnah’s novel decenters well-known European historical narratives—of the World Wars, and the period between them—and places instead the colonised subject at its centre.

Afterlives follows several individuals born in East African territories colonialised by the Germans and within their control until the end of WWI. The wars touch the lives of some of the novel’s protagonist more than they do others but are mostly tangential, one way or another. That is not to say no principal character of the novel is shaped by service to the Germans—Hamza, who bitterly regrets signing up to be part of German-led troops during the Great War certainly carries the scars of emotional torture given him by a German officer. This German takes a liking to him, eventually deciding to teach Hamza his language so well that he will be able to read Schiller. For all that, most of the novel shows life beneath the margins of colonisation; not the events themselves, but the everyday living that takes place as history is shaped.  

It’s no great surprise that all characters Gurnah introduces the reader to eventually intersect—and in significant ways. Structure is another of the novel’s strengths – Gurnah, the retired chair of Kent’s English Literature department, is well versed in novelistic tradition. Afterlives recalls nothing so much as a Victorian novel, with its indifferent narrator who holds both readers and characters at arm’s length, with its cast of increasingly interconnected characters. While the tone will remind you of Victorian novels (if you’ve read your share, at any rate), Gurnah defies those conventions. Throughout the text, and especially as the pages started to run thin, I expected some horror to befall the characters, some (melo)dramatic tragedy strike and take away what Hamza and Afiya had accomplished; yet that never happened. It’s a tool in the writer’s kit, keeping to the letter of a certain novel type’s structure, subverting it in a way that makes the work all the stronger.

Time expands and contracts through the book, with short sentences sometimes ceding years of history to the background of a prominent family event—a loss, a triumph, a personal victory. Characters we might consider principal disappear from the story, leaving only mystery behind. It’s nifty storytelling, the kind that entices you to read or listen further, looking, hoping for answers. My greatest interest in Afterlives has to do with how the novel represents the inner workings of colonisation, what I think is the most subtle element of this monstrous project called colonialism. No character shows this better than Ilyas, Afiya’s brother, who is kidnapped as a young boy by the German Schutztruppe, eventually freed and educated by Germans. No section shows how insidious soft colonial power is better than this one:

You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Ilyas said. ‘I have met with nothing but kindness from them.’
‘Listen, just because one German man has been kind to you does not change what has happened here over the years,’ another man, Mahmudu, said, addressing him. ‘In the thirty years or so that they have occupied this land, the Germans have killed so many people that the country is littered with skulls and bones and the earth is soggy with blood. I am not exaggerating.’
‘Yes, you are,’ Ilyas said.
‘You people here don’t know what happened in the south,’ Mahmudu continued. ‘No, the British don’t stand a chance, not if the fighting is on land, but it won’t be because of German kindness.’
‘I agree. Their askari are ferocious and complete savages. God alone knows how they have become like that,’ said a man named Mahfudh.
‘It’s their officers. They learn their cruelty from their officers,’ said Mangungu, speaking in a tone of authority intended to settle the argument as he liked to do.
‘They were fighting an enemy who was just as savage in retaliation,’ Ilyas said, undaunted. ‘You haven’t heard half of what those people did to the Germans. They had to be harsh in retaliation because that’s the only way savage people can be made to understand order and obedience. The Germans are honourable and civilised people and have done much good since they have been here.’
His listeners were silent in the face of such vehemence. ‘My friend, they have eaten you,’ Mangungu said eventually, having the last word as usual.

Contrast Ilyas with Hamza, and you’ll discover much, if your interests run across the same fault lines as mine. There’s much to liken these two characters, even more to distinguish them from one another. The author is at his most potent in that examination—to read him is to draw a glimmer of understanding when before you might have had none.   

I leave you with this quote by Abdulrazak Gurnah:

“Everything you read…it opens up issues. It makes you understand things, It, in a sense, humanizes what we know both historically or in terms of social events. So you can study a period, let’s say the period of the Russian Revolution in history class – and then you can read Dr. Zhivago or even War & Peace and they will give you a different perspective on events that are to do with the Russian Revolution. That’s what I mean when I say literature humanizes–it actually gives you people going through the processes you’re reading about, and there you live through that experience with whoever it is being written about.”

It’s revelatory, isn’t it, when it comes to the way his fiction works? Well, I’ll leave that judgement to you. One way or another, Afterlives will offer you a little something to learn.

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