PARADISE Abdulrazak Gurnah’s East African World of Dreams, Nightmares, and Rude Awakenings

The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2021 takes us with his novel Paradise (1994) to a highly stratified East African society at the turn of the twentieth century. Against the backdrop of an increasingly pervasive European domination and surrounded by a breathtaking incommensurable landscape, a boy’s transition into adulthood is determined by complex power relations and the increasing awareness of being a stranger in his own country.

Image: Hu Chen.

Versión en español

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise evolves around the coming-of-age of Yusuf, a twelve-year-old boy living with his parents in Kawa, an East African town with a particularity that marks his life: he and his family are strangers in this place. They arrived attracted by the promise of wealth represented by the railway station built there by the German colonists, but that turned out to be nothing more than an illusion, just another failed business endeavour of his father, a dream quickly turned into a nightmare that would seal young Yusuf’s fate. Pawned to his father’s creditor, a rich Arab merchant, Yusuf’s childhood comes abruptly to an end with his father’s bankruptcy. His actual journey then begins as a reflective path into adulthood, travelling across a breath-taking scenery, first to the merchant’s sophisticated home in the coastal city, later a long way to the hinterland of the country: the route of the old caravans leading to the feared and enigmatic lakes and their “wild” people. This is the point in which the issue of otherness, subliminally hinted at the beginning of the story, starts to flow impetuously across the narrative, developing a pervasiveness only equated by the impressive appearance of the African landscape.

In Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise, “wildness” is only one marker of otherness among a wide range of differentiations made in a society that is as highly stratified as diverse, shaped by locals and immigrants from the most different backgrounds, who speak different languages, who believe in different gods, and who are always in movement: back and forth across a landscape that in its complexity mirrors the intricate social hierarchies taking it hostage. While the coastal town is represented as the highest level of order and civilization, the deeper the journey leads into the hinterland, the stranger landscape and people seem to become. The awareness of these differences, the realization of the experience of being the “despicable other” already in Kawa, as an invisible barrier between his father and mother, him and the children of the Indian merchants, him and the seyyid, his “master,” formerly known to him for years as “Uncle Aziz,” are the start of Yusuf’s awakening into adulthood. Yusuf’s coming-of-age melds a geographical discovery of the country with the realization of its social harshness, a reality that leaves the underprivileged without voice and agency, just before a major change and a new experience of otherness is about to start with new invaders.

Abdulrazak Gurnah subliminally problematizes hierarchies built on the basis of ethnical background, caste, wealth, religion, and social position, revealing them as both implacable and deceitful, then the same man who believes himself superior can be despised by others at any time for the most banal reasons. In this constellation, the European newcomers, especially the Germans, as fearsome strangers, find their place as the embodiment of the biblical Gog and Magog. Yusuf knows them mostly rather from hearsay then, his world, after the shock of the sudden separation from his beloved mother, still appears to have something delightful, peaceful, generous: his solace is the merchant’s beautiful garden, a dream from which he is not able to awake so soon. Only his silences and his premonitory nightmares, what he feels and sees in his dreams as his personified “cowardice,” never leave him, haunting him even more fiercely after he discovers love. And while he dreams and grows under the endless beauty of the East African sky, he reflects on the meaning of being alive, of being dead, of being both, a kifa urongo, a living dead in a state of slavery, before leaving all dreams and nightmares behind him in a first act of self-determination in his life. Yusuf becomes adult at last, taking the readers with him, bringing them not only closer to his touching fate, embedded in a fascinating landscape, but also to the crucial questions of the humans search for freedom: across of time, place, and hierarchies.

About Abdulrazak Gurnah:

Born in 1948 in the former Sultanate of Zanzibar, Abdulrazak Gurnah is an Emeritus Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2021 “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”* Paradise ( shop link) was first published in 1994 by Hamish Hamilton in London, being nominated for the Booker Prize and the Whitebread Prize for Fiction.

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