Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Gravel Heart (Bloomsbury 2017)

Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’ He was born in Tanzania in 1948 and has lived in the United Kingdom most of his life. Gravel Heart is his ninth novel, and the only one available in my local library. It’s not singled out in any of the biographical outlines I’ve read, but it’s a wonderful novel. Here’s how it starts:

My father did not want me. I came to that knowledge when I was quite young, even before I understood what I was being deprived of and a long time before I could guess the reason for it. In some ways not understanding was a mercy. If this knowledge had come to me when I was older, I might have known how to live with it better but that would probably have been by pretending, and hating.

Not to be too spoilerish: when I read the last page of the novel, I immediately flipped back to those sentences. It’s hard to imagine an introduction to the story that follows that is more misleading, and yet at the same time true to the story.

The narrator, born in Zanzibar, travels to England when he finishes school, with the support of a wealthy uncle, leaving his father who is eking out a miserable existence on the margins of their town, and his mother who is having a liaison with a powerful man in the government. After decades, in which he leads a fairly aimless life in the UK, he goes back home for a visit. His mother has died and he spends a substantial amount of time with his father.

I approached the book tentatively – these Nobel Laureates can be tough going. But I’m happy to recommend the book as a completely absorbing read. I felt the young man’s painful yearning for home and his mother, and his difficulty in communicating in letters across the widening cultural gulf was so intimately real to me that I had to keep reminding myself of the vast difference between his life experience and mine. (I was sent off to a prestigious boarding school a thousand miles from home at age 14 and had no idea what to write in my mandatory weekly letter home.) Mostly in England he associates with other non-White people, though some of his amorous liaisons might be white. There’s only one moment of explicit, vile racism, and though the reader sees it coming the young man is caught completely, devastatingly off guard.

The real thrill of the book for me is in the final chapters where the naturalistic mode of storytelling is stretched to its limit as the father tells his son the story of his life over two long nights. But you decide to accept the manifestly artificial set-up because the story is so powerful, and fleshes out the tantalising hints that have been there from that first paragraph. Then, stretching verisimilitude just a bit further, the son realises that his father’s story is a variation on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. (The book’s title is a phrase from that play, though I still don’t know what it means.) I can’t say how or why, but I found that moment deeply moving: something in my understanding of the world, of colonisation and racism, moved deep inside my head.

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