Many readers around the world are still just discovering Abdulrazak Gurnah. After his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021 – which almost no one saw coming – the 72-year-old Zanzibar-born author is finally in the limelight that was perhaps due to him for a few decades now.

Born in 1948, Gurnah spent his childhood in the islands of Zanzibar before escaping to England in the 1960s. This was shortly after the island gained independence from British colonial rule in December 1963 and went through a revolution. However, the post-revolution regime ushered in the oppression and persecution of citizens of Arab origin.

At the height of the civil unrest, massacres became a common occurrence on the island. Gurnah belonged to a persecuted minority ethnic group and, after finishing school, was forced to leave his family and flee the country. He would not return to Zanzibar, now Tanzania, before 1984. Apart from being a prolific writer, Gurnah has taught English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury. He has recently retired.

African adventure

I, too, joined the party some 30 years later, when Gurnah’s Nobel win compelled me to take a look at the author’s works simply because I feared being left out when the buzz would eventually be generated around his writings. His 1994 novel Paradise is often celebrated as his most remarkable work – after all, it was the book that put him on the shortlist of that year’s Man Booker Prize and Whitbread Prize.

So, Paradise seemed like the perfect starting point. Combining the genres of bildungsroman, travel fiction, and historical fiction to give us a story that is for the ages, Gurnah brings us, in less than 300 pages, a world that is deep in its complexities and seamless in its narratives.

The story opens in an unnamed village in East Africa – 12-year-old Yusuf lives an impoverished life in which both money and food are scarce, though his mother’s unbridled laughter and father’s guarded affection make it all bearable. Not much is said about Yusuf in terms of his education and upbringing, but close proximity to poverty has taught the boy the importance of money and all the cunning ways in which it can be acquired.

Yusuf’s days are spent waiting for a frugal meal of bone broth and looking forward to visits from Uncle Aziz, who brings a whiff of all things worldly and the promise of a parting gift in the form of money. But one such visit changes Yusuf’s life completely, when his father insists that it’s time to stop being a child and, instead, accompanying Uncle Aziz on his exploits.

The initial excitement of leaving home and setting off on a great adventure is replaced by helplessness when Yusuf is told that he’s been pawned to Uncle Aziz (who turns out to be not his uncle but a moneylender) by his father until he can settle his debts. The only way for Yusuf to return home is when his father pays off the loans – a possibility so unlikely that he resigns himself to a life of physical drudgery and braces for whatever is to come.

Slavery in paradise

Over the following months, Gurnah’s narrative takes us to the rural grasslands of East Africa, coastal cosmopolitan towns, and back again. Instead of the familiarity of his childhood home, Yusuf must now try to find a place in a city where Arabs, Indians, and even Germans and the English are fighting for a slice of the fabled African fortune.

Yusuf dons many menial hats in the city where he works at the store, becomes an attendant to the Seyyid, and joins his caravan to travel into the heart of Africa, taking a job as a gardener during one such journey. As the boy grows into a young man, Yusuf’s disarmingly good looks make him a favourite with both men and women. He quickly learns to overturn their unwelcome attention, till, in an unexpected turn of events, he gets involved with his master’s two wives. Difficult choices have to be made and Yusuf prepares himself for yet another extraordinary chapter of his life.

Yusuf’s travels over the years across a variety of terrains give us a glimpse of a continent that is on the brink of a massive social and political shift – one that heralds Western imperialism. As the European powers arrive at the African docks, readers know what is going to happen to the people, although this is unknown to Yusuf and his mates.

Even though it is only the early years of colonialism, the existing hierarchies and frictions between various classes shatter any illusion that one may have had of an egalitarian African society. Gurnah objectively illustrates that despite the unmitigable damages of European imperialism, some of the rot was already in motion.

The parable-like narrative enables the reader to make their own journey from the carefree days of Yusuf’s childhood to complicated trials of premature adulthood. Though Yusuf is fortunate enough to be treated well and undertake adventures of his own, we are forced to wonder what exactly constitutes “paradise” when one is taken a slave as a child.

The illusion of this “paradise” shatters soon enough and Yusuf, now armed with experience and understanding, must take control of his own fate. Gurnah ends the novel on an uncertain note. We do not know what happens to Yusuf – whether he chooses to bow to a different master or finally revolts against the injustice of it all. Much like the continent itself, Yusuf’s narrative is abandoned at the edge of what-has-been and what-could-be.

Paradise is wonderful in every way – Gurnah’s terrific writing and wisdom shine through in the prose, and you are aware of being in the presence of a rare talent. But, most importantly, it serves as an important reminder to read books that do not feature on any year-end lists, are declared commercial failures, or even fail to make their way to bookstore shelves.

(Until his 2021 Nobel win, Gurnah was not represented by any American publisher. This is set to change only now, with American publishers Riverhead Books acquiring the rights to Gurnah’s 2022 novel, Afterlives.)

Paradise, Abdulrazak Gurnah

Paradise, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Bloomsbury.