Gurnah’s most recent novel, Desertion, begins in East Africa under the British, in 1899, two years after the abolition of slavery, and thirteen years after the sphere-of-influence accord between the British and the Germans, which gave the British Kenya and the Germans Tanganyika. In this new era of imperial expansion owing to the rubber trade and the building of the railroads, Martin Pearce, an English gentleman and Orientalist, is brought into the lonely life of Rehana Zakariya, an Indian-African woman isolated in a crumbling town down the Kenyan coast from Mombasa. A century later, the story of their secret affair captivates their descendants, who are strangers to one another, but in whom, in their avid, forgiving curiosity about the lovers, East and West will meet again.
When the novel opens, Rehana’s brother, an Indian shopkeeper, finds Pearce collapsed from exhaustion in a square, in front of a mosque, and takes him to his shop. For a moment, Rehana thinks the semiconscious figure may be the husband who abandoned her years before, a merchant from India who simply went back when it suited him. The unexplained appearance of a European, or mzungu, is an event and as soon as Frederick Turner, the colonial administrator, hears of Pearce, he ventures into streets he finds disgusting in order to rescue the white man from his brown Samaritans. Swahili is the common language and there are people who speak Arabic and Gujarati fluently, but before Pearce stumbled into town, Turner has had only a drunken rubber plantation manager for English conversation and white male companionship of his own class. The plantation manager tends to hold forth about how the inevitable Darwinian disappearance of Africans will make room for white settlers throughout East Africa. “This continent has the potential to be another America.” The harvests had been profitable, until one English manager took it upon himself to free the sultan’s slaves and reemploy them as wage labor, at which point they ran off. People won’t work anyway.
“In slavery they learned idleness and evasion, and now cannot conceive of the idea of working with any kind of endeavour or responsibility, even for payment,” Turner observes, a creature of his prejudices, too. Indians had been there before the Portuguese. “If you see an Indian trader setting up in business, you can be pretty certain there is a penny or two to be made in the place,” he says. A cultivated man, as Gurnah portrays him, Turner is nevertheless a mere wheel of the colonial administration who had been more comfortable in India than in small, bypassed Zanzibar. “No African language had writing until the missionaries arrived,” he reminds Pearce.
While convalescing at Turner’s house, Pearce tells his story, which Turner misunderstands, because he assumes that Pearce’s attitudes toward Africa and Africans are like his own. Pearce tells Turner he was a historian and a linguist, and had been traveling in Abyssinia, working on a book, when he met an Englishman who invited him to join his hunting expedition to Somalia. Since he had hardly traveled there, he couldn’t resist going along. “The white hunter organized everything, the camels, the guides, the provisions, like an angry quartermaster most of the time.” They killed every day. “It was unbearable destruction.” Slaughtered meat, drying hides, flies. He protested, until he was allowed to head for the coast with Somali guides, who eventually abandoned him rather than kill him.
Because Pearce can speak Arabic, as well as some Swahili, he can avoid discussions with the other white men about “the hubris of Empire” and make his own contacts among the townspeople. “He loved the way his halting knowledge of the language had always won him friends in his travels, and now here too. He was not at a loss to understand why.” When invited by Rehana’s brother to lunch, he readily accepts. While Turner behaves in an insulting and threatening manner toward the shopkeeper and his family, Pearce is conscious of his debt to Rehana’s brother, not doubting that “natives” are entitled to a gentleman’s consideration. He is introduced to Rehana. “That was what he saw first, those eyes.”
Gurnah shows what the colonizers think of the colonized, but also what the local population thinks of Europeans in their power. While Turner’s first thought is to get Pearce away from the local people, they see only the arrogance and ignorance of his precipitous actions. The differences in perception and the cultural misunderstandings between brown and white people make for Gurnah’s deeper subject in the novel. Unfortunately at the point in the story where Rehana and Pearce begin their affair, the narrative ends, and Rashid, a man of this century, an Indian in exile from Zanzibar living in England, takes over in the first person. He says he does not know how Rehana and Pearce became lovers and can’t imagine how they circumvented the woman’s guardians. Moreover, “the people [Pearce] was among [i.e., the local British] would have been curious of how he went about his affairs. They would have kept their eye on him.” Rashid toys with different versions of how the affair may have started. He knows from his brother that Rehana followed Pearce to Mombasa and that they lived together until Pearce, it was said, “came to his senses” and returned to England.
What Rashid knows about their story comes from his brother, Amin, because the love affair had consequences for him. Desertion now becomes a novel about the involvement of the twentieth-century characters in the lovers’ past: “about how one story [the love affair between Rehana and Pearce] contains many and how they belong not to us but are part of the random currents of our time”â€”that is, the twentieth-century characters will become part of this unknown past.
The novel abandons the story of Rehana and Pearce’s love affair to tell the story of Rashid, his brother, Amin, and his sister, who all grow up after World War II in crumbling Zanzibar. Rashid and Amin progress from Koran schools to state schools. Amin enrolls in a teachers’ college. They do not know that they are trying to work out their futures between the end of one age and the beginning of another.
This section of the novel concerns another illicit affair, between Amin and Jamila, a friend of his sister’s, a divorced woman six years his senior who lives in an apartment in her family’s house with her own street door. That she is of a higher class than Amin only seems to further darken her image in the eyes of his family. It turns out, Rashid tells us, that she is the granddaughter of Pearce and Rehana, a woman still notorious in their families. Though Jamila hasn’t been approved by his family, Amin dreams of their life together. “He walked home like someone remade, beautiful and loved.” The lovers are discovered and his parents force Amin to give her up.
Rashid’s reflections then go back to the year before independence, and he suffers guilt that he was too caught up in his own excitement that he was leaving to study in London to realize the depths of his brother’s heartbreak over the loss of Jamila. He recalls his own alienation as a student in Britain in the late 1960s, and remembers that it was years before he could write home about his doctoral degree in English, a long time after the brutal politics of the new Tanzanian regime back home had turned him into an exile. He remembers the telegram from his brother telling him that his mother has died. It has been twenty-two years since he last saw her. He gets a parcel containing his sister’s book of poems, published in Rome, and presumably written in Swahili, because Gurnah never specifies in which language a character is attempting to communicate (just as he never says what these people call themselves: black, brown, African, Indian). A poem about Jamila and Amin makes Rashid weep. After he learns that his brother has become nearly blind, he receives the notebooks that Amin kept in his youth, his melancholy, beautifully written record of his doomed affair and his account of Jamila’s later life as a mistress of a minister in the new government, and what Amin knows of her grandmother’s love affair with an Englishman back at the turn of the century.
Later, at “a conference on the treatment of mixed-race sexuality in English writing” in Cardiff, Frederick Turner’s granddaughter Barbara happens to be in the audience for Rashid’s paper on “race and sexuality in settler writing in Kenya.” In this speech he talks about what he then knew of Rehana’s story of desertion. “I did not at that point know Pearce’s name,” Rashid says. After he meets the granddaughter, he learns that Turner had written his memoirs, in which he had given a brief version of an affair between a native girl and an unnamed Englishman. Frederick Turner’s granddaughter is also Martin Pearce’s granddaughter. The two men had met again, it turns out, back in England and Pearce’s daughter by his white English wife later married Turner’s son. So Rashid has discovered Rehana’s name from his brother’s notebooks and Pearce’s name from Turner’s granddaughter, who is as interested in their story as he is. Rashid implies that he is having an affair with Barbara and that she is resolved to find Jamila and her other East African relatives. He thinks it is time for him to go home, too, “to put my fears to rest and to beg pardon for my neglect.”
It is too bad that Gurnah drops the story of Rehana and Pearce’s affair, because it is the best part of Desertion. The account of their illicit love is moving, whereas his later commentary on the cultural obstacles to their love is more essayistic. The supposedly postmodern strategies Gurnah uses in this second section, of fragmentary texts, historical self-consciousness, and miraculous coincidences, are far less satisfying than the straightforward tale of romance and taboo.
Rashid’s description of his hard times in London in the 1960s puts one in mind of Naipaul talking about London in the 1950s in The Enigma of Arrival, just as Gurnah’s exiles seem related to the cynical merchant and survivor in Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. Yet Desertion doesn’t read like an attack on contemporary African history, perhaps because Gurnah’s twentieth-century characters of Arab and Indian origin are too much at a loss in their improvised lives to come off as superior to black Africans. But the nineteenth-century characters in Desertion are as likely as the Europeans, the mzungu, to have “a mouthful of notions about the savage,” unpredictable in his anger, uncontrollable in his hungers. “An animal.” “Everyone told savage stories all the time.”
Zanzibar’s African and Arab history is not directly described in Gurnah’s work, including the difference that made coastal Muslims so anxious to distinguish themselves from their non-Muslim, tree-worshiping neighbors. Meanwhile, the part that Islam plays in the lives of his characters is clear, if unexamined. It is simply their identity, their family rootedness. When one of his deracinated young men from Zanzibar is mistaken for a West Indian, he tells himself that he wishes he had the heart to explain that he was “strictly in Indian Ocean land,” not Afro-Caribbean, that he had nothing to do with the Atlantic; he was Muslim.
It is the Muslim encounter with European imperialism, not Africa’s encounter with the Muslim empire, that Gurnah emphasizes. But Gurnah doesn’t seem interested in the problems among Indians, Arabs, and Africans in Africa, and he lets them sit just below the surface. He is thinking culturally, which isn’t always the same thing as thinking racially. And yet for his East African characters, their being Muslim can isolate them within English society, even when they are only nominally Muslim. It’s as though Gurnah’s characters don’t understand: they think they are representing a culture, whereas they are being perceived in racial terms. But maybe the insistence on looking at things culturally hides an unease about race, as if to be Muslim and of mixed Indian Ocean ancestry were to be brown, not sub-Saharan black. Something in Gurnah’s characters doesn’t want to admit that brown wants to have its own quarrel with white and doesn’t want to make common cause with black anymore.
And yet Gurnah belongs to the African exile. He has no trouble speaking of African writing, and identifies himself as being among the African writers who compose and publish in European languages.5 He belongs to Wole Soyinka’s generation, writers for whom the founding event was not the slave-trading past but rather independence; writers betrayed by politics, many of whom have not really gone back to where they came from, except in their minds.
Essays on African Writing, edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Heinemann, Vol. 1, 1993; Vol. 2, 1995).↩
Essays on African Writing, edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Heinemann, Vol. 1, 1993; Vol. 2, 1995).↩