The Great Gurnah

An appreciation of this year’s Nobel Prize winner for literature

Many people welcome the Nobel committee’s granting of the world’s most prestigious literary award to the Zanzibar-born Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. For some, it matters little that they have never heard of Gurnah before or read any of his ten novels. The list of Nobel recipients includes few authors who do not hail from Europe or America, and the last Black author to win was Toni Morrison in 1993. So, if you wanted more diversity, now you’ve got it.

Once the announcement came out on October 7, online and brick-and-mortar booksellers found themselves swamped with orders for the work of this underread writer, and copies of some of his books began selling for astronomical sums online. (Gurnah’s U.S. publisher is The New Press, whose aggressive self-promotion as a nonprofit house serving the interests of ordinary people somehow does not preclude charging $28.95 for a thin paperback with no art inside.)

There really can be no doubt as to the pressures facing the Swedish Academy in the run-up to its October 7 announcement. Like so many other cultural institutions around the world, the academy to which the Nobel committee belongs has come under fire for sins against the church of diversity. Journalists have dragged its name through the mud, drawing up lists of white versus nonwhite and male versus female winners and complaining about indiscretions like the bestowal of the award in 2019 on Peter Handke, the avant-garde Austrian who had the temerity to back Serbia in the Balkan conflict. Handke’s not a bad writer at all, but for some reporters, identity comes first and literary merit a distant second.

A Writer of Merit

Gurnah

But Gurnah’s recognition is well earned. He’s  a fine stylist who crafts vivid descriptions of the East Africa he knows intimately. Gurnah’s most brilliant novel, Paradise, is an account of a boy named Yusuf whose father pays off a debt by handing him over to a merchant in a caravan making the rounds and selling wares throughout the region. One thing that Gurnah does expertly, as the caravan moves out into the wild, is to capture the topography of a land where the twists and juts of plant and rock can come to feel like expressions of a mental or spiritual state.

“Each day the land changed on them as they descended from the high mountain ground,” Gurnah writes. “The settlements grew less clustered as the country dried out. Within days they were down on the plateau and their column raised clouds of dust and grit with every step. The scattered scrub took formidably gnarled and twisted forms, as if existence was a torture.”

Hemingway would not have felt ashamed at writing such a passage. Gurnah’s descriptions grow ever more haunting as the party moves further into the wild and has run-ins with crocodiles, hyenas, buffalos, snakes, raiding parties, and the spirits of the evil dead.

The reaction

Gurnah’s gifts are plentiful. For many, then, here’s a choice that ticks all the right boxes, or a good number anyway. Admittedly, Gurnah is not a woman or a trans person. No one’s perfect, right? Everyone from Gurnah’s editor at Bloomsbury to fellow East African writers to the New Yorker to the books editor of the Irish Times newspaper to random commentators on the web have praised the choice of Gurnah on various grounds. What it often comes down to is the lack of diversity among recipients and, more specifically, the failure to recognize the talents of African writers.

The choice of Gurnah placates the identity-politics crowd while elevating the international stature of a writer who, in the Nobel committee’s words, has engaged through his work in the “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

European colonialism preyed on African societies, and here’s a writer who captured its ravages. But is that all there is? It really does pay to read the work of an author you wish to celebrate. Gurnah deserves recognition for his talent, but if some of those who have praised him so richly took the time to sit down and read him, they might not like everything they’d find.

Complexities

The Nobel committee’s decision is a laudable one, even though there are many writers around the world at least as deserving of the prize as Gurnah. Haruki Murakami is an obvious candidate, and many of his fans felt let down that he did not win. Novelist Peter Carey and poet Les Murray of Australia would both have been defensible choices. Quebec’s Gaëtan Brulotte is eminently worthy. Philippe Labro and Emmanuel Carrère of France are outstanding, as is a very different kind of frog, Michel Houellebecq, the enfant terrible whose iconoclasm may prevent the Swedish Academy from ever sullying its gloves by holding out the award to him.

What some of those applauding Gurnah don’t get is that he’s not politically correct either. In a way, the prize he has just received is one that was overdue for an African writer. One in particular: Chinua Achebe of Nigeria, who died in 2013.

Like Gurnah, Achebe wrote about that flashpoint where European incursions had their impact on a traditional, tribal society. Again like Gurnah, his protagonists tended to be young men trying to find their way in a world that has lost its moorings. Once again like Gurnah, much of what Achebe presents in his novels flies in the face of politically correct attitudes and assumptions.

In Achebe’s best-known novel, Things Fall Apart, the hotheaded young Ibo protagonist, Okonkwo, belongs to a tribal society where people value the hypermasculine and the warlike, and one of the cruelest insults you can fling at someone is to say that he has womanly traits. These are fighting words. For Okonkwo and others, the arrival of white missionaries is troubling precisely because the whites bring all these weird ideas about equality and rights. Such a scenario is hard indeed to reconcile with the politically correct view of things, according to which nonwestern societies were peaceful, egalitarian, and “in harmony with nature” until the arrival of those pink-faced strangers messed things up.

So with Gurnah. In his unforgettable novel Paradise, the protagonist, Yusuf, his Uncle Aziz, and the others in the caravan have many adventures and brushes with death, rendered by Gurnah in supple prose, and their trials reveal nothing more explicitly than social attitudes prevalent in this part of the world. One male member of the caravan gets mad at the other guys and tells them, “You’re nothing but a bunch of whimpering women.”  The glorification of war, and contempt for women, are equally evident on the part of the tribes through whose lands the caravan passes. “They thought war honorable and were proud of their history of violence. The greatness of their leaders was measured by the animals they had acquired from raiding their neighbors, and by the number of women they had abducted from their homes,” Gurnah writes.

Another character, Maimuna, eggs on workers by telling them that if the advance of civilization had been up to women, humans would still live in caves. In the world of the caravan’s operators, people are commodities and the value of women has to do with their performance of sexual favors for a price. Two of the caravan’s porters get into a fight after one of them steals the other’s garden hoe in order to pay for the services of a woman. They know what matters to them, all right. But there’s no certainty in the world of Yusuf. The arrival of Germans in the region is increasingly on characters’ minds as the plot moves along.

Hence the clash of cultures that becomes one of the novel’s themes, as German colonists spread throughout the region and sow unease among the tribespeople, is not quite the Manichean struggle that much of the buzz about Gurnah—and the Nobel committee’s announcement in particular—might lead you to believe. None of what Gurnah depicts would sit well with the woke these days, and in particular with their notion of intersectionality, which holds that women, minorities, and the gender-nonconforming share woke values and stand together on one side of the political-cultural divide, facing down their eternal foes, the white male oppressors.

Let’s hope people around the world read and appreciate a writer who captures the complexity of real human experience, Abdulrazak Gurnah.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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