Since Abdulrazak Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021, the Zanzibar-born author who lives in the UK has suddenly become known to mainstream audiences. His work has been honoured for its uncompromising and compassionate examination of the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees. Gurnah’s calm and thoughtful manner during his Nobel Prize Lecture, in which he recounted how important writing became to his consideration of political contexts, were reminiscent, for me, of the narrative voices in his novel By the Sea. This novel, which he published in 2001, is about a dispute between two families that takes place against a backdrop of political change. An elderly gentleman, Saleh Omar, recounts in highly reflective and often self-critical retrospect why he had to flee to England so late in his life with little more than a mahogany incense box. In England, he poses as Rajab Shaaban Mahmud. As the book progresses, further fragments from Latif Mahmud’s perspective are added to complete, complicate and contest the context of what is happening. Latif is Rajab’s son, who in turn has played a significant role in the difficulties Omar has faced. Although he is a lot younger and sometimes reproachful, the narrative voices of the two are very similar.
In England, Saleh lives in a small coastal town, which is about the only thing that reminds him of his life in East Africa. With the help of social worker Rachel, he is first moved from temporary accommodation for refugees to a bed and breakfast where bizarre characters enter the frame. It is a setting that illustrates the repulsive nature of what refugees have to go through in many European countries; how they are no longer perceived as individuals, but as parts of stories told by others. Saleh remains silent, observes, arranges his thoughts, and spends his days withdrawn, even when he is able to move into a simple flat of his own. Latif visits him there later and together they unravel the conflicted history that connects them.
By the Sea is set at a time when there has been a regime change in their East African country of origin – it sounds like the situation in Zanzibar that prompted Gurnah himself to move to Britain in the 1960s. The Arab upper class, of which Saleh is a member, is disempowered and persecuted by the new government for sometimes inexplicable reasons. This context is not explained but is cleverly made tangible through the experiences of Saleh and the Mahmud family.
As in Gurnah’s novel Afterlives, which was published later but which I read first, I was particularly captivated by the fact that Germany is involved in the story of By the Sea. But unlike Afterlives, By the Sea is not about German colonialism, but about African students in East Germany. Before Latif gets to England, as a young adult he spends some time living near Dresden. Thanks to a scholarship, he begins to study dentistry. In fact, historically there was a lively exchange between the GDR and Zanzibar, far beyond scholarships. But despite the constant protestations of socialist solidarity, Latif experiences racism. What is also interesting about the scenes set in Germany is that Gurnah tries to show different perspectives on flight and the feeling of home through the encounters Latif has.
By the Sea is a complex novel that is well worth reading. To understand the nuances, I would certainly have to read it several times and deepen my knowledge of Zanzibar and its relations with the GDR. Still, I must confess that I liked Afterlives a little better – probably because not only male characters are central and allowed to demonstrate agency, and because the narrative voices exude more energy. But in the end, the books are so different that I can in good conscience recommend reading both and making your own judgement.
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