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A black square with the cover of Abdulrazak Gurnah's novel on the left side and a black and white headshot of Gurnah himself on the right side

(Un)Bearable for whom? German colonialism in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives

“The Germans are honourable and civilised people, and have done much good since they have been here.”

“My friend, they have eaten you.”

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Afterlives (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 42.

Afterlives, by Abdulrazak Gurnah, brings us the story of intertwined “little lives” in German-occupied Africa. The teutonophilic Ilyas who voluntarily joined the Schutztruppe, Hamza who was taken under the colonial wing of a military officer, and his wife – Ilyas’s sister Afiya, who loved her brother for ‘rescuing’ her from a life of abuse and drudgery. Gurnah illustrates the stories of these lives, and pins them to historical moments in Germany’s colonial history. He presents these characters as individuals, whose stories intersect yet remain their own – and he places them within an undeniable historical tapestry. It is important for white Germans to acknowledge a colonial history and their part in global colonialism. Furthermore, acknowledging colonial brutality should not be a choice dictated by what additional sins a German person can or cannot “bear” about their past, but rather one that considers the consequences of said brutality in the Global South.

“Germany doesn’t want to think about its colonial history for a variety of reasons,” In an event for Africa Writes, Gurnah explained the positioning of characters in his novel. “Firstly, because it lost everything with the Treaty of Versailles. Secondly – because so much of it is so incredibly ugly. Countries like France and Britain were able to rewrite a different narrative of their own colonial histories, the railways, the education, the benefits. All that remains of German colonialism is the ugliness and brutality. For modern Germany – this is a problem – what to do with this brutality.” He continued that, in a sense, this history was superseded by the horrors of the Second World War. That it was “difficult enough” to get people to confront the nation’s cruelties in the Second World War, “without being told how on top of that, they were already doing all that to Africans.”

Gurnah ties together his characters in a master knot with the term ‘bearability’. None of his characters are major historical players, even the German officers are relatively low in rank, and Hamza and Afiya are themselves surrounded by the minutiae of everyday life. Their connections to the colonial moment are presented in swallowable mouthfuls: Hamza being taught German by his superior officer, Ilyas joining the Schutztruppe claiming the Germans were there for the benefit of the nation, the Schiller poem translated into a love letter for Afiya. These moments are, whilst tragic, certainly bearable. Yet when put together, they illustrate the pervasiveness of German colonialism, and its impact on not just the askari troops, but also on people like Afiya who had never spoken a word of German in her life.

The novel brings to light, primarily in Ilyas but to a lesser extent Hamza and Afiya, the postcolonial identity of people from territory once occupied by Germany. The people who spoke German but did not ‘belong’ in Germany, the people who wrote love letters by translating Schiller’s poetry, yet never once set foot in Germany. And aside from the colonialism of the past, Germany still runs schools and more palatable ‘educating missions’ throughout the global South. I use the phrase “palatable” because these German-speaking schools are today just seen as part of global outreach programmes, with their ambivalent position not necessarily judged in the same manner British schools abroad are. Those students from the global south who studied and thought in German but did not belong in Germany, would not belong in Germany, were not German, had no contemporary identity and were defined simply by non-German Westerners as teutonophiles – where is their place in history? Gurnah’s portrayal of a Zivilisierungmission that washed its hands of those they ‘civilised’ is a practice that takes place to a lesser extent even today, not just by the Germans but by the French, the Dutch, and the British too. 

It is a testament to Afterlives’ deliberate bearability that there is no indelible line between the human and the inhuman. Hamza’s commanding officer, whilst brutal and militaristic, sees something of his Schiller-loving brother in Hamza, and thus teaches him German. There are another sympathetic German couple – the Pastor and the Fraupastor, who take an injured Hamza in and let him recuperate under their roof, yet clearly hold subtle bigoted reservations themselves. The German characters oscillate between kind and brutal, proving the binary between human and inhuman does not exist, only power. The individuals who made up the colonial forces could be kind – but only on their terms, and only when they wished to be so. 

Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung is a far-reaching and conscientious practice. It does not only involve studying the horrors of the Holocaust from a detached historical gaze – instead, the nation accepts and analyses the culpability of hundreds and thousands of ‘ordinary people’ in such atrocities. So would it be too difficult to extend this definition and also study the culpability of many German citizens in colonial brutality? Gurnah shows that it is not impossible. Perhaps some of the officers are kind, perhaps it is good that Hamza learnt German. But the teaching of German had always been a fun game to the soldiers. Perhaps the Feldwebel had helped Hamza with his injury. But Hamza woke up in terror years later, still dreaming of the ominous, choking feeling he brought about. Perhaps the Oberlieutenant had misgivings about the Zivilisierungmission – but Hamza knew that those misgivings were not addressed to him, and that they had no impact on how the officer treated him. 

Gurnah spoke about coming across the story of Bayume Mohamed Husen, the Afro-German soldier and actor, who was ultimately imprisoned in the Konzentrationslager Sachsenhausen for a charge of “rassenschande” (racial defilement, or racial disgrace). He said that the story was a footnote, until a documentary film depicted his life – a part of the hidden histories. Eaten up by a refusal to acknowledge that this too, was brutality. That this too, held connections to the atrocity of the Holocaust and the fascistic beliefs of the Nazis. Yet often they remain absences in history, dictated by the shame of those who may find it ‘unbearable’ to acknowledge it. This superseding of histories, based on who can bear what, becomes a deliberate act – one which many Black German scholars are working hard to counter today. 

And holding Afterlives together with his absence is Ilyas, who is presented through ephemera linked to moments in history. Letters, political opinions, uniforms. And finally, the excavation of an Ilyas-shaped hole in what is probably the most spoken about period in German history. Ilyas is presented as a vacancy, a series of absences, only defined by his connections to those who loved him. This depiction of the character illustrates how bearability itself is constructed and defined by who is doing the bearing. The tragedy of German colonialism and racism is, for the German public, unbearable. For Ilyas’s family, and for the family of Bayume Mohamed Husen – it is something that must be endured.

Gurnah is very clear about the uncertainty of what the “something to be endured” is. Ilyas’s story – his mannerisms, his behaviour, his kindness, his obsessiveness – is told through the eyes of those who loved him. Yet after he disappeared, the history recorded by the Germans and exhumed by his nephew, is confined to two pages. His occupation, his ‘crime’ of being in an interracial relationship, and his death in a concentration camp. Gurnah succinctly illustrates the cost of a Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung that is defined by what a German could or could not endure – the relegation of lives to the margins, and the inability to afford words to describe your generational trauma.

“So what we can know for sure, is that someone loved Uncle Ilyas enough to follow him to certain death in a concentration camp to keep him company.”

Gurnah, Afterlives, 275.

This is not to say that these marginal lives were meaningless. To me, Ilyas was Afterlives – his presence a looping thread throughout the novel, tying together lives and histories. And this thread carried on strongly even to the very end of the story, where Ilyas was determinedly referred to as Uncle Ilyas. Gurnah ended his novel affirming the importance of people like Uncle Ilyas: they were loved, they were cared about, and their presence was enormous in the lives of those they left behind. And that is what is unbearable about Afterlives. The shock of the absence, the caving in of the scaffolding built around these lives, the lack of explanation for their loss – that is unbearable.