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Abdulrazak Gurnah's Gravel Heart is a complex but rewarding read.
By PETER STUPPLES
Abdulrazak Gurnah's territory as a novelist is the "relentless manner in which life conducts its business'' regardless of culture, ethnicity, time or place.
It is the same struggle to survive, to find love and emotional security, to find one's place in the world and to accommodate oneself to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune''.
It is this ubiquity of pain, of the search for love, and the experience of deceit that Gurnah places in Gravel Heart, both in his native Zanzibar and in the south of England, and also within the rich poetic tradition of medieval Islam and the plays of Shakespeare.
The novel, surprisingly enough, is a recasting of the plot of a Shakespeare play within the social and political realities of post-revolutionary Zanzibar of the 1960s and '70s. The hero, the narrator, Salim, grows up with a family secret hanging in the air, a secret not fully revealed until the final chapters (peekers, beware of spoiling your own pleasure!).
Salim's father left the family when the boy was 7 and went to live the life of a recluse in the back room of an old friend. He never returned to the family. Later, Salim becomes one of those who take food to him every day, though his father never engages with him in conversation or even acknowledges him in the street. Salim's mother will not speak about what made his father leave but silently organises the daily gift of food.
His uncle Amir, his mother's brother, had moved into the austere family house earlier. Amir was ambitious, ruthless and a man of the world - quite the opposite to the unworldly father. Amir accepts Salim's father's departure without comment. The secret is there, palpable but unexplained. It is a sadness that Salim cannot, as a child and teenager, understand, but it helps to give rise to his caution, his wariness of others, his difficulty in relating, his lack of trust.
Eventually, Amir becomes a successful diplomat, invites Salim to join him and his family in London, and pays for him to go to business school. In London Salim experiences all the homesickness of the immigrant and the prejudices of the host culture. He makes friends almost exclusively with other Africans, but soon discovers that within the immigrant communities themselves are divisions and cultural taboos that cannot be broken. Realising business studies are not for him, he becomes a student of literature, against all the advice of his ambitious uncle.
For Salim, literature is a way of understanding, through thoughtful recollection, what he has left behind: life in Zanzibar, the world of the Koran school, the poetry of the early writers in Arabic, his mother and father before his father's departure.
The novel opens with the oft-repeated line, "The beginning of love is the recollection of blessings'', and it is this search for those early blessings, fragments of memories of his father, that keeps alive for him a love of his father that is re-enacted in the last chapters of the novel. However, the sadness that pervades Salim in his adult life can never be lifted. It is only the beginnings of love that we are invited to experience, never its consummation.
That writing is dense, complex, rewarding. People of Western cultures are mercilessly pilloried, but fellow Africans fare no better. This is a novel of wistful power that will give readers a great deal to think about and may challenge some of their own assumptions.
Peter Stupples teaches at the Dunedin School of Art.
Win a copy
The ODT has five copies of Gravel Heart, by Abdulrazak Gurnah, to give away courtesy of Bloomsbury NZ. For your chance to win a copy, email books editor firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and ‘‘Gravel Heart’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, July 11.
LAST WEEK’S WINNERS
Winners of last week’s giveaway, Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story, courtesy of Bloomsbury NZ: Peter and Lynne Hill, of Mosgiel, Marian Vlaar, of Dunedin, Leeanne Cahill, of Ocean View, Rona Ngarotata, of Palmerston, Rebecca Matthews, of Middlemarch.