Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise

by Chris Mack

December 11, 2021

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in 1948 on the island-state of Zanzibar, now a part of Tanzania on the eastern coast of Africa. After the Zanzibar revolution of 1964 he emigrated to England as an 18-year-old refugee. He spent the rest of his life in England, becoming a critically acclaimed and commercially unsuccessful novelist, and a university professor of literature, now retired. Almost all of Gurnah’s protagonists were born in Zanzibar and most of his stories involve at least some action in Tanzania. According to Wikipedia, the consistent themes running through Gurnah's writing include “exile, displacement, belonging, colonialism and broken promises by the state. We definitely see all of these themes in Paradise, set in Tanzania just before the start of World War I.

Our hero is Yusuf, indentured to a wealthy Arab businessman at age 12 to pay off a portion of his father’s debts. We watch Yusuf come of age as a thoughtful and remarkably beautiful boy. His master Aziz is brave, cunning, and cool-headed, delegating the cruelty required by his business to his employees. He uses the greed and gullibility of small-time merchants on his trading routes to risk their money in his business ventures, coming away with most of the profits when business is good, and an occasional slave when the business does not go well. Yusuf becomes an apprentice of sorts, where his innocence and beauty make him a compelling companion for Aziz, and an object of desire for Aziz’s enigmatic wife.

In the six years of Yusuf’s servitude he undergoes many adventures, with the most compelling being the journey into the heart of the Congo. This reverse trip is opposed in many ways to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with colonialism and the African culture it aims to replace both exposed for their violence and cruelty, but not for their savagery. In the end, the 18-year-old Yusuf has lost his innocence and is banished from the Garden of Paradise. With nothing to tie him to a home, family, or culture he can call his own, he gives up any pretense to a self-directed future and joins the German colonial masters to fight in a war he has no stake in.

Yusuf represents many things in this novel: innocence and its loss, beauty as the impetus of desire, the cruel consequences of “vengeful acquisitiveness”, even Africa as a whole, so easily succumbing to the bondage of colonialism when there is no foundation of respect for human freedom to combat it.

Gurnah’s writing is beautiful, his characters always interesting and rich with detail. The layers of symbols in Paradise are neither too obvious nor too opaque to appreciate. His ability to pack much meaning into few words reminds me of Hemingway. It has also been wonderful reading about a place and time that I am almost completely ignorant of.

I first heard of Abdulrazak Gurnah on the day his 2021 Nobel Prize in literature was announced. This despite a concerted effort over 20 years to become well-read and knowledge about the best of literature available in English. I suppose I must accept the fact that the amount of literature worth reading so far exceeds my ability to read it that even knowing which authors are worth reading is an unattainable goal. In any case, I am delighted that Abdulrazak Gurnah is now on my “read” list.


Chris Mack is a writer in Austin, Texas.

© Copyright 2021, Chris Mack.

More essays...