Review: ‘Afterlives,’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah

AFTERLIVES, by Abdulrazak Gurnah

In his 1961 book “The Wretched of the Earth,” the French psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote that “the settler only ends his work of breaking in the native when the latter admits loudly and intelligibly the supremacy of the white man’s values.” Abdulrazak Gurnah’s superb 10th novel, “Afterlives” — his first to be published in America since his work went out of print decades ago — proves this theory true, through the interwoven stories of three protagonists in an unnamed coastal town in German East Africa in the early 1900s, a period when virtually all of the continent “belonged to Europeans, at least on a map: British East Africa, Deutch-Ostafrika, África Oriental Portuguesa, Congo Belge.”

At the center of the novel is Afiya, an orphan who is rescued from her abusive caretakers by her long-lost brother, Ilyas, who has himself endured kidnapping by German colonial troops before receiving his education in a German mission school. Through Ilyas’s best friend, a half-Indian merchant named Khalifa, Afiya’s story intersects with that of Hamza, a taciturn ex-soldier who arrives in town still scarred from his time in the colonial army.

In this story as in history, the German empire is a living, breathing organism with a desire to grow and reproduce and, if threatened, fight for its survival at all costs. Gurnah depicts the white man’s racism plainly: “I was born into a military tradition and this is my duty,” a German officer says to Hamza. “That’s why I am here — to take possession of what rightfully belongs to us. … We are dealing with backward and savage people and the only way to rule them is to strike terror into them.”

To do their bidding, the Germans dispatch a band of African recruits called the askari to torture villagers and slaughter local chiefs who dare to put up resistance. The askari are so merciless in pursuing their white master’s cause that they “left the land devastated, its people starving and dying in the hundreds of thousands.” Regardless of whether these young men joined the army willingly or by coercion, they fight for the imperialists with a “blind and murderous embrace of a cause whose origins they did not know and whose ambitions were vain and ultimately intended for their domination.”

Early in the story, the kind and sympathetic Ilyas — who has spent a year taking care of his little sister, teaching her to read and write and showering her with affection — decides to volunteer in the German effort against the British in World War I. The reader is as disturbed and shocked as Afiya, for whom the last year has “felt like the happiest time of her life.” Gurnah reveals the ensuing sequence of events slowly and expertly, his tone abounding in empathy and devoid of judgment, even as the ramifications of Ilyas’s choice grow in magnitude over the years and decades.

Of course, Ilyas is unaware of both the damage he is causing and the damage that his nine years in German captivity have caused to his own heart and mind. Like Fanon, Gurnah knows that what the European imperialists did to African bodies in many ways pales in comparison to what they did to African minds. When Ilyas defends the Germans, calling them “honorable and civilized people” who “have done much good since they have been here,” another local says bluntly, “My friend, they have eaten you.” Similarly, when Ilyas announces to Khalifa that he will be volunteering in the army, Khalifa gives the response every sane 21st-century African would give: “Are you mad? What has this to do with you? … This is between two violent and vicious invaders, one among us and the other to the north. They are fighting over who should swallow us whole.”

“Afterlives” may be an exploration of imperialism and war and the minor, untold stories that get lost in the major, oft-repeated ones, but it is equally a love story. After finding themselves taken in by Khalifa and his wife, Asha, Afiya and Hamza — two young people who have seen the extent of human wickedness, Afiya at the hands of her fellow Africans and Hamza at the hands of Europeans — choose to surrender themselves to each other so that they might build something new and beautiful out of the rubble.

Gurnah beautifully renders their moments of delight despite the brutal reality around them. Pining hard for Hamza, Afiya “felt a small leap of elation every time he knocked on the door, and felt the beginnings of a smile on her lips, which she suppressed in case she seemed eager and flurried when she opened the door.” But much as the shadow of the German empire hangs over this part of Africa, the shadow of Ilyas’s departure hangs over Afiya and Hamza as they seek to create the loving families they never had growing up. Afiya names their firstborn child Ilyas, a decision that ultimately leads to the revelation of why her brother never came back home.

Born in the Tanzanian archipelago of Zanzibar, Gurnah moved to England during the Zanzibar revolution at 18, and lives there today. It is evident from this novel that he still carries his homeland in his heart; “Afterlives” is a celebration of a place and time when people held onto their own ways, and basked in ordinary joys even as outside forces conspired to take them away. Even in times of war, he shows, single women still hope for ideal husbands, businessmen seek profit, spouses quarrel, men gather for evening gossip, loved ones frequent one another’s houses to care for the sick, toast marriages, observe holidays.

Until he won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, Gurnah’s long oeuvre had gone out of print in the United States, and now American publishers are scrambling to meet the demand for his writing. He is a novelist nonpareil, a master of the art form who understands human failings in conflicts both political and intimate — and how these shortcomings create afflictions from which nations and individuals continue to suffer, needlessly, generation after generation.

Imbolo Mbue is the author of “Behold the Dreamers” and “How Beautiful We Were.”

AFTERLIVES, by Abdulrazak Gurnah | 309 pp. | Riverhead | $28