You can hear God breathe – De Groene Amsterdammer

Abdulrazak Gurnah did not write a hopeful book

Steve Parsons / Alamy / ANP

Things can get weird in the literary world. An English writer had to peddle for years with his first manuscript, Departure Memory, until finally finding a publisher in 1987; two years later there is even a Dutch translation: Memories of my black rotten youthHe only received international recognition in 1994, with his fourth book, Paradise, which appears here in a translation by Tinke Davids by Van Gennep. After that, the writer more or less disappeared, though of course he didn’t sit still. To everyone’s surprise, he was awarded the Nobel Prize last October. Hardly anyone knew him, none of his books were sold outside England.

But now Dutch readers can make up for a bit of damage: Meulenhoff comes with a reprint ParadiseI’m talking about Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in 1948 on Zanzibar, an island off the Tanzanian coast of East Africa. The country gained its independence in 1964, after a very bloody civil war erupted in Zanzibar, until the end of the nineteenth century, which mainly affected Arab and Indian landowners. Since that year, the island has become part of Tanzania. Gurnah was no longer sure of his life and fled to England in ’68, where, in addition to being a writer, he became professor of English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent. If anyone could write about his country’s violent history with authority, it would be him.

Paradise is a wonderful book. Written in an accessible, image-rich style, often a bit serious, it’s also easy to read, though words are often and untranslated in (Ki)swahili, the native language of much of East Africa. But the simplicity is deceiving. On the surface, the adventurous and exotic tales are easy to follow, but in a historical, geographic, and political sense, it’s hard to orient yourself without a guide in an area crowded with mixed peoples, cultures, and religions. And the omniscient narrator doesn’t play that guiding role, he lacks information, he doesn’t engage in reflection, commentary or interpretation, characters aren’t psychologically explored. In the ‘modern’ European novel tradition of the nineteenth century, this book is FremdkorperIt has much more to do with the oldest tales and myths, regardless of whether they are religious in nature or not.

Yusuf’s head is the place of prophetic dreams, his hands are endowed with magical healing powers

And that was the intention of Gurnah unequivocally. The story he entered Paradise narrate is a variant of the story about Yusuf in the Quran, most of which corresponds to the biblical story of Yusuf and his brothers, also known to us from art history and literary history, from the Vondel drama trilogy to Thomas Mann’s giant tetralogy. Joseph and the Seine BrothersYusuf Gurnah, like his mythical prototype, is sold to a merchant, becoming a court servant in a foreign land, where the ‘madam’ tries to seduce him (in vain). He is attractive not only in a physical sense, but also spiritually he is a chosen one: his head is the place of prophetic dreams, his hands are endowed with magical and healing powers. But Gurnah avoids the postmodern, intertextual view, he takes his characters and their experiences as seriously as the Qur’an or its narratives. One Thousand and One Nightsright

Yusuf was twelve years old when the story began. He was the son of a heavily indebted hotel owner in the ‘town of Kawa’, who was ‘prosperous because the Germans had set up a depot for the railroads they built into the inland mountains’. It’s an indication of time: Tanzania was a German colony from 1884 to 1918, this book is set in the early twentieth century; In the concluding chapter, German troops march in fear through the city of Yusuf – the First World War has begun. We had met Germans several times before, often in a mixture of awe and horror. ‘The more severe the punishment, the more severe and irreconcilable’ [de Duitser]And the punishment is always severe. I think they like to punish. Once he decides on the sentence, you can plead until your tongue swells, but the German will stand before you, dry and shameless.’

You would expect, from a Western perspective, of course, that Gurnah would look closely at the misery of the colonial period, perhaps also painting an idealized counter-image of the pre-colonial period. The title of the book would later refer to that time. Quite a number of readers gravitate toward that interpretation, the title of a recent German translation adding this to: That Lost Heavenit’s wrong. The strength of this book is precisely that there is no question of lost heaven, despite the necessary advice of the extraordinary nature of paradise. Sure, Joseph loved the waterfall, ‘you can hear God breathing’, but the ‘paradise’ is inhabited by ‘barbarians and thieves who rob innocent merchants and sell their own brothers for trinkets (…). They do not know God or religion, or even common grace. Just like the beasts that live there too.’

And like the reader, Yusuf gradually discovers in the sad world he grew up in, that he must share not as a servant but as a debt slave with ‘Uncle Aziz’, who turns out to be no uncle at all. And more generally, that the persistence of traditional pre-colonial slavery was different, but no less cruel and cruel, than the violent display of ‘European’ rule. It makes Paradise does not immediately become a book of hope; It is beautiful and attractive, although a strong afterword and glossary would not be an over-the-top luxury.

Astrid Marshman

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