Sunday, 30 October 2011

Zanzibar - Gurnah's Paradise

One of my main motivations for starting this blog was because I was interested in discovering literary gems from other countries and cultures that I might otherwise have missed. 

It's been such a pleasure to read Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah.  The novel is quite well-known in the West, having been shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1994.  Gurnah was born in Zanzibar but has made a career for himself in the UK.  He currently lectures at the University of Kent.  Paradise didn't win the Booker prize - this was awarded to James Kelman's, How late it was, how late - a controversial decision that led one of the judges (Julia Neuberger) to resign from the judging panel. 


Paradise is set in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) during the period of German colonisation.  The main character is a young man called Yusuf who is taken away from his parents at a young age and sent to live with his 'Uncle' Aziz, a relatively affluent merchant, who spends a lot of his time journeying into Africa's dark interior to trade with distant tribes who live beside the lakes of the Great Rift valley. 

Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah
The urge to trade

One of the biggest themes of the book is the importance of trade and the great lengths that Uncle Aziz will go to trade with distant tribes and make a profit on his return home.  Not all of the trade is legal and it's revealed that Aziz is stock-piling rhinocerous horn, in a village at the end of the train line, where it can easily be transported to the coast and sold off to Indian merchants, when times are tough. 

A lot of the action of the novel centres on a disastrous trading expedition to visit a tribe on the far side of the lakes.  The journey itself is horrendous, with Aziz paying a fortune in 'gifts' to the tribal villages they pass through, some of his porters die in the jungle before they even reach their destination.  When they get to the village of the faraway tribe, they are held hostage and have all of their goods taken from them by force.  They eventually negotiate themselves out of the situation and leave with most of their goods, selling everything off at a cut-down rate as they make their way home.

Yusuf reflects on the human desire to trade 'it made him wonder what it was that people wanted so much that they could overcome that terror in search of trade'  Trade is certainly an interesting human impulse - wars have been fought over trade, societies have been corrupted and ruined in search of profit, and yet, it's an impulse that has driven forward progress and opened the world up to (what we consider to be) civilisation.  Uncle Aziz only seems happy when a trading expedition is in progress - it's as though it's the trade itself that gives his life meaning and not the settled life he comes back to and invests most of his profits into.

Zanzibar was at the heart of the East African and Indian ocean trade routes.  The wealth of Zanzibar was built on the trade of cloves and other spices and the trade in slaves from the African interior to the Arab world and beyond.

The pain of movement

Despite Uncle Aziz's desire to trade and travel into the interior, the language of the novel depicts the movement as frightening and unnatural.  When they are travelling to the jungle, the wheels of the train screech in high-pitched protests and the homesteads they pass hug the surface of the hurtling earth.  After the heavy rains in the jungle, the earth seems alive with movement, which scares the men, as they move further and further away from the civilised world. 

A new kind of slavery - Rehani and Magendo

Dhow at dusk by Caneles
Although slavery had been abolished by their European overlords, a kind of slavery persists in the novel and Yusuf finds out that Uncle Aziz isn't really his uncle and that he (Yusuf) has been given to Aziz by his parents as a type of rehani or 'bond', until Yusuf's father pays back a debt that he owes to the merchant.  When Yusuf arrives at Uncle Aziz's house, he is befriended by another young man, called Khalil, who is Uncle Aziz's shopkeeper and also bound to him as a result of a debt. 

As the novel progresses,Yusuf falls in love with Amina, Uncle Aziz's young wife and servant to 'the Mistress', the widow Uncle Aziz married because of her fortune.  Amina's case is even more deplorable, as she is megendo or 'stolen' and was sold to the merchant by Khalil's father, also to pay off a debt. 

Yusuf becomes fascinated by the old man, Mzee Hamdani, who tends to the Mistress's garden. He is a freed slave, who decided to stay with the family, even after slavery had been abolished.  He only speaks once during the novel and his words fascinate Yusuf when he says 'They offered me freedom as a gift.  She did [the Mistress]. Who told her she had it to offer?'  It raises an interesting point about whether or not one person can really own another person and that, somehow, freedom is not something that can be given or taken away. 

The Garden and the Jungle - desire and brutality

The novel is infused with a powerful and threatening sense of sexuality.  Yusuf is considered to be extremely handsome and arouses the interest of the various adults he comes into contact with .  He is the subject of unwelcome teasing by Ma Ajuza, one of the customers in the shop where he works with Khalil.  He is an object of desire for the men, as they deal with the hardships of the jungle.  He becomes an obsession for the Mistress, who convinces herself that she can only be cured of her mysterious illness, if she allows Yusuf to have sex with her. 

Brutality and romance are interwoven throughout the novel, a good example being the behaviour of Bachus, the Greek-Indian lorry driver, who constantly sings love songs, only pausing to unleash a string of obscenities, directed at the various porters.  Mohammed Abdalla, the mnyapara who manages the porters, is feared because of his great physical strength and his reputation for sexually abusing the men. 

Paradise, the title of the book, is ironic, in the sense that it describes 'hell on earth'.  The jungle is hell and paradise, at one and the same time - paradise because of the freedom Yusuf experiences there and the wonderful sights that he sees whilst travelling.  The garden is a sensual paradise, nurtured by Uncle Aziz's profits.  But it's also where Yusuf is watched by the Mistress - it is a prison and the walls are high. 

Reaching out by Caneles
Scavenging dogs and the fear of Wolf men

Dogs feature frequently in the book.  Yusuf associates them with his move to Uncle Aziz's home.  He and Khalil are forced to sleep outside and the dogs attack them, causing Yusuf recurring nightmares that haunt him throughout the rest of the novel.  One of their greatest fears in the jungle is of meeting the Wolf men - the product of interbreeding between the wolves of the jungle and the savage tribes.  Kalasingh is the Sikh driver who wants to translate the Qu'ran into Swahili, so the native Africans will understand the intolerance of their God.  He points out that Muslims are afraid of dogs, just as the Prophet Muhammad feared them.  As I've highlighted in previous blogs, dogs often herald death in art and literature and death pervades the novel Paradise.  When Khalil first meets Yusuf he nicknames him, kifa urongo which means 'the living death'.

In one of the key scenes at the end of the novel, Yusuf overcomes his fear, when he sees the dogs feasting on piles of excrement and they growl at him, warning him not to come near.  He realises that, like the dogs, he will be forced to 'eat shit' for his entire life, unless he does something drastic to change things.

Europeans and Indians - Gog and Magog

There is a real sense of fear in the descriptions of Europeans in the novel and hatred for the Indians who act as intermediaries between the Europeans and the native Africans.  The Africans believe that the Europeans have supernatural powers.  That they can eat iron and that they breathe fire!  They live in fear of the Germans and the brutal way that they make war.  The Germans bring an inflexible approach to punishment that fails to respect local traditions of retribution and being able to buy your way out of a hanging or whipping.  It is the Germans who rescue Uncle Aziz's property from the jungle tribe and it is the Germans who come searching for young men, at the end of the novel, so they can make war on their European enemies, the British.

The characters seem resigned to their fate and unable to counter the strength of European domination.  When Yusuf sees the German officer at the end of the novel, he thinks that the officer is smiling and, therefore, kind.  It's only when he sees the German officer up close that he realises the smile is a grimace, created by a physical deformity, it exposes the Germans rotting teeth and gums, prompting Yusuf to think of him as a living corpse. 

There are several references to Gog and Magog in the novel - the savage tribes that come from the north of the known world.  In the end, Yusuf decides to take his chances in the service of the Europeans, leaving his 'paradise' far behind him. 

Other themes

To Paradise Island by Caneles
Paradise is quite commonly compared to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but I also see elements of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (the madwoman in the attic) and Joseph, the son of Jacob in the Old Testament.  Like Joseph, Yusuf is abandoned by those who should take care of him and has to find his own way in a world that is incredibly hostile. 

The theme of language is an important one - especially the use of Kiswahili and Arabic and how this decides the nature of some of the relationships between the main characters.  When they are in the jungle, Nyundo the translator, ultimately holds the balance of power in the discussions between Uncle Aziz and the tribal leader. Yusuf is totally dependent on Khalil to translate between himself and the Mistress.  When Khalil refuses to translate any more, Amina takes over and the way she translates opens up a whole new conversation, which made me think about the different language used by men and women in the novel. 

The novel also has a lot to say about gender - although there are very few female characters, the world they inhabit is every bit as cruel as the world inhabited by the men. 

I see a lot of similarities with the last novel I read for this blog, Zayd Mutee' Dammaj's The Hostage (see my blog post about Yemen) - they both deal with young men who are removed from their families and kept as slaves/servants in a rich household.  They both deal with repressed sexuality and the exploitation of young people.  Both books have opened up a whole new world of Arabian and East African fiction for me, that I didn't previously know existed. 

Gurnah uses a lot of Swahili words throughout the novel and this has introduced me to a whole new language.  I'm pasting some of the new words I've learned below:

kanzu, tajiri mkubwa, washenzi, vibarua, mnyapara, kipande, maandazi, mahamri, nahodha, buibui, qasida, mganga, pombe, askari

Image credits:

The image of the book cover was taken by me.  I read the 1995 Penguin (2nd) edition of the book (no doubt published by Penguin, as a result of the novel's literary success)

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the photography of flickrmember caneles, who is originally from Amsterdam.  You can see more of his work at his photostream - thanks caneles for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license. 

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