Books: Sing a song of exile

ADMIRING SILENCE by Abdulrazak Gurnah Hamish Hamilton pounds 16
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Abdulrazak Gurnah's previous novel, Paradise, was one of the most beautiful I had read in a long time. Its story of loss, servitude and love in a world increasingly cramped and spoiled by colonialism captured exactly the sadness in things lamented by poets. His new book shifts between Zanzibar and England, between our contemporary present and the recent past, and sounds an even bleaker note for the fate of human beings kicked around by the cruelties of history. The narrator, and the reader too, are both saved from complete despair by the vein of anger and bitter humour which runs through the book as a main narrative charge and makes you believe in the cautious optimism of the ending.

The narrator hides his name from us. We have to guess why. Is he being fashionably unreliable and tricksy? Does he want to stand in for Everyman? Does anonymity lend power? This ancient mariner of a storyteller refers to himself as "I". Others, in cold, unfriendly England, have their epithets for him, as well he knows. When, early on in the novel, he visits the doctor - "the kind of man you would find running the world from whichever angle you squinted at it" - he finds himself labelled as "Afro-Caribbean people". Then comes the translation: "He meant darkies, hubshis, abids, bongo-bongos, say-it-loud-I'm-black-and-I'm-proud victims of starvation and tyranny and disease and unregulated lusts and history, etc. You know, my race."

Yes, we know. We start to imagine that perhaps the narrator's name is precious to him, as a sign of identity, of the goodness inside him, the self he needs to love in order to survive, so that he must not give it away or he will lose everything. The novel tracks an inner journey as well as an outer one, a quest for knowledge and dignity across self-hatred and self-disgust. Right at the end, when the narrator sits plucking up courage to telephone a woman he has met on the plane, you get the impression that he might be ready to tell her his name.

His road has been a hard one. His story is both easy and difficult to tell. Easy, in that it takes place on the familiarly harshly lit stage of the modern diaspora. Difficult, in that the narrator can't tell a simple truth in case he is rejected by his listeners. He has fallen in love with an English woman, Emma, with whom he has a child. He studies, takes his degree, teaches in secondary school, endures, feels insecure and angry, bursts out in raging monologues. Emma's parents treat him as something you'd keep in a jar and peer at, while Emma, good white liberal proving her radical credentials by living with him, patronises him and seems to use him as a badge of political chic. At other times she is simply nasty to him.

Across an ocean is another family, in Zanzibar, the narrator's own. He can't tell them that he's abandoned them to the extent of setting up home with a white girl he's not even married to. He's broken by exile in both directions. Nobody truly knows him, because he has so many secrets to keep. The loneliness of this is described with shattering and unforgettable impact. Finally, a trip back to Zanzibar reveals other things about the past, more complicated than we've been allowed to suspect, more of the troubled present, and a glimpse of a possible future. I don't think I've ever read a novel that is so convincingly and hauntingly sad about the loss of home, the impossible longing to belong.

Gurnah does take a risk with his readers. His narrator trusts us to stick with it, in a narrative that loops wildly all over the place, just as the human mind does, spiralling and riffing, interjecting long explanatory passages about post-colonial politics into dramatic and domestic episodes. This works, because we're reminded at every moment how history shapes even our intimacies. The narrator also trusts us to stay close and listen. He has tremendous pain and anger to describe, and he counts on us to act as friend, to bear witness. Quite quickly, we're moved from thinking yes, well, he is rather a difficult person, into feeling strongly for his passionately articulated elegy.

In a novel that does not depend much for its effect upon the visual, some scenes of startling beauty stand out: the narrator's young mother tending the lavender and rose bushes she grows in old kerosene tins on the balcony, her movements as she stretches up to hang out the washing, the way she lies on the balcony at night to think and dream, the rapture of her early married life when she and her young husband nightly whisper their secret stories to each other. By contrast, Emma, the white woman, is insubstantial, less real and embodied. But perhaps that is the narrator's revenge on her for her unkindness. She does not know how to listen. Generously, astonishingly, boldly, the narrator appears to think that we will. It is certainly worth it.