In novel after novel, the Zanzibar-born British writer Abdulrazak Gurnah has laid powerful imaginative claim to the eastern seaboard of Africa, those shores where India breathes upon the continent and where a transplanted Islam has benignly flourished. Desertion, his much-awaited seventh novel, presents a richly coloured picture of the island of Zanzibar in the mid-20th century, as well as its coastal satellites in the colonial days of the Sultanate: their noise, crowds, dust, ruined walls; in particular, their sequestered interiors where secret passions mature.
The story spans several generations to draw in key local events from the colonial period at the end of the 19th century, and from the late 1950s, not long before independence. In contrast with this vivid intensity of Zanzibar's modern history, yet also in reflection of it, the novel's main characters live out inconclusive loves and lives in which desire is cruelly, seemingly irrationally, cut short.
Told from the point of view of the diligent Rashid, younger brother to Amin, one of the main mid-century characters, Desertion at first appears to fall into a melancholic call-and-response pattern between present and past. The strong sense of fatality, of almost inevitable loss and desertion, which connects the two central love affairs is accentuated by Rashid's relative distance from the heart of the action, suffering as he does the eerie displacement of the foreign student in 1960s Britain.
In the shorter final section, where our charismatic narrator steps forward to relate his own story of chilly exile, he resolves the generational logic whereby desertion begets desertion, and colonial neglect, postcolonial rejection. In evocative, sardonic prose he describes the stages through which he assumes the identity of the dark-skinned foreigner in England; his recourse to academic life, and the diminution of any possibility of return to his island.
Zanzibar's violent post-independence upheavals mean that his desertion is not of a person but of country and, by extension, family. The breakup of Rashid's marriage to Grace, whom he meets in England, brings him to the point where he is able to identify with the sorrows of other lovers within his lineage. The heartache and leave-takings of the imperial past are doomed to repetition until such time as Rashid is able, through the medium of his narrative and a coincidental encounter with a new lover, to tie up loose threads and put them to rest.
Desertion's portrait of Martin Pearce the "irresolute" colonialist, who prefers to speak Arabic with the natives, represents an involving experiment in characterisation. By dint of strong contrasts with more "despotic" mzungu (white men), Gurnah almost manages to pull it off. Yet it is revealing that the novel's least convincing love affair flowers between Pearce's Zanzibari lover Rehana and this courteous Englishman, captured at the moment of their first encounter, before the slide into social disgrace and abandonment, even before declarations of love have been made.
Laden with colonial allusions ranging from Stevenson to Richard Burton's explorations, Pearce's first moves towards his lover rehearse the West's blundering incursion into lives it was to change utterly, despite its sometimes good intentions. To this extent, it is predictable that the affair is doomed from the start.
Yet for all the novel's unsettling complicities and parallels, Desertion offers many pleasures. Gurnah is particularly good at conveying with sincerity the moments of connection that sustain "the random currents of our time" - affection and tolerance between brothers, parental love, the cautious vulnerability of a young man in love. Despite the cutting divisions of colonial and postcolonial history, these areas of respite allow anger to modulate into understanding, and encourage the work of remembering the lost things of the past to begin.
Elleke Boehmer teaches at Royal Holloway, University of London; her 'Colonial & Postcolonial Literature' is due from Oxford in July
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