Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah — ‘elegantly written, unsparingly sad’
What makes a hero? Adrift, an observer rather than a doer, young exile Salim is in some ways a curious choice of narrator for Abdulrazak Gurnah’s ninth novel. There are other more dramatic characters within the book; and the central, chilling story does not even concern him directly since it takes place when he is an infant. Salim lacks vital information that would clarify much that is mysterious about his family — yet his style is to shy away from confrontation and direct questioning.
“My father did not want me,” he begins. It will take him years to understand why his “Baba” abruptly left home to become a recluse, demonstrating a passivity that Salim is to inherit. Apart from the “trauma and deceit” of his circumcision at the age of five — chillingly described — Salim’s childhood in Zanzibar is the source of warm memories. He lives with his parents and his amusing Uncle Amir, his mother’s brother, who comes to exert a sinister power over the whole family. But first the reader stands in need of a history lesson. Accordingly, Salim recounts the varied fortunes of
his paternal and maternal grandfathers under British rule and beyond.
The British colonists are seen as self-deluding buffoons — but what follows independence is dramatically worse. One grandfather, Maalim Yahya, is a Muslim scholar for whom all answers can be found, if not directly in the Koran, then in its many commentaries. He moves to Dubai after losing his government teaching post, leaving behind Salim’s 17-year-old father, who falls for the beautiful Saida. Her father, Ahmed Musa Ibrahim, in contrast vigorously opposed British rule but aligned himself to the wrong political party. Taken away by soldiers at gunpoint, he is never seen again and the family home is confiscated. Against this fearful backdrop the love story of Salim’s parents plays out. The tendrils of intimidation reach far into the future, right up to the point where Salim, sponsored by his ever-obliging Uncle Amir, comes to Britain as a business student. Some of his reactions on arrival must surely mirror those of the author, who himself came to Britain from Zanzibar in the 1960s and who has taken the complex legacy of colonialism as a recurring theme.
Gurnah’s conclusions are melancholy: evil triumphs, and colonialism has left behind a deadweight
Salim is more perplexed than energised by London’s cosmopolitan mix of cultures. Uncle Amir quickly reveals his true nature, forcing Salim to join the dispossessed and exiled. He eventually finds refuge in a house in Camberwell filled with Africans and run by the endearing Mr Mgeni. Amos, a Nigerian tenant, is one of many brief but resonant pen-portraits. Belligerent and brooding, Amos rages against Muslims and poisons the atmosphere of the whole house, until they discover that he was a child soldier in the Biafran war.
Everyone has a story, grim, sad or fascinating, and we hear many of them while Salim himself remains stubbornly inert, at least on the outside; within, he’s filled with keen, unsparing insights. A combination of cultural deference and personal diffidence makes it impossible for him to confront Uncle Amir and his untrustworthy Aunt Asha, but even in his letters home to his mother, Salim self-censors and avoids conflict. An abrupt change in circumstances sends him home to Zanzibar, where he finally hears the full story of his childhood.
Shakespeare, described by a character here as one of that “exhausted crew of imperialists”, provides the title and the outline of a moral conundrum. Elegantly written and unsparingly sad, this tale of personal and political corruption closely reprises one of his plots (it would be giving too much away to say which). Unlike a play, Samir reflects, real life rarely turns tables so neatly, or appropriately punishes the guilty.
Gurnah’s conclusions are melancholy: that evil often triumphs, and that colonialism has left behind a deadweight that is almost futile to struggle against. Gurnah’s anti-heroic stance is explicit; all the men of action here have a negative effect on those around them. Salim could be talking about himself when he remarks of his father, “Some people have a use in the world . . . and some people don’t.” It is a moving portrayal of a man caught in a web of cultural expectations and struggling to be free.
Gravel Heart, by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99, 272 pages