Red Wheelbarrow Book Reviews
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Desertionby Abdulrazak Gurnah
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
This is a novel about identity and displacement. We are in colonial Africa, Zanzibar in 1899 when the country was under part British, part Ottoman rule.
We are introduced to the story of Hassanali, a shopkeeper of mixed Indian and African descent who stumbles on a severely injured European, an Arabic speaking British historian who has been attacked by a bunch of Somalis while on a hunting expedition and left to rot in the middle of nowhere. We meet the family of Hassanali and eventually see his sister Rahana fall in love with that white man. She proceeds to go off with her white lover to the capital city, leaving her family forever.
All this in the third person, this description of the story of a muslim woman and her love for a white man. Abruptly the author shifts to the first person narrator without letting us into any detail but instead changing time and entering the 1950s, skipping two generations and bringing us to the revolution and eventual independence of his country.
Once again, we have a third person tell us about another Zanzibar family, apparently unrelated to the first, two parents and three children. Not until the very end do these tales join up and become coherent.
The authorís themes are colonialism, its vices and virtues; oppression and dominance as seen through the role of women; exile and desertion via cross-cultural lives. Hasslini, an Indian marries an African woman; Pearce and Rahana have an illegal mixed race child; Rashid succumbs to the logic of race when he meets real prejudice in London. Everyone deserts: white men desert natives, the yong desert the old and they desert their country; Britain deserted its colonies. All is in flux. Nothing remains as it was. Only change is constant.
The language is beautiful. The love stories have deep emotional resonance. The loneliness of the student among an alien culture in London is palpable.
I found the book difficult to get into, but once in it, I had a hard time putting it down.