Desertion, by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Empire, the exploitative lover
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The Independent Culture

Desertion is a recollection of two very different love affairs, two generations apart but umbilically linked. In 1899 Martin Pearce, an orientalist robbed by his Somali porters while travelling in the East African hinterland, crawls into a coastal town near Mombasa.

Desertion is a recollection of two very different love affairs, two generations apart but umbilically linked. In 1899 Martin Pearce, an orientalist robbed by his Somali porters while travelling in the East African hinterland, crawls into a coastal town near Mombasa. Hassanali, a shopkeeper, takes him in. When he returns to repay these courtesies, Pearce is bewitched by the shopkeeper's sister, Rehana, deserted years before by her sea-faring husband. Their mutual yearning is unlikely but profound enough for her to live with him in Mombasa, bearing his child and her shame. Eventually, inevitably, Pearce leaves her for England.

In the years leading up to Zanzibar's turbulent independence in 1964, Amin is seduced by the older Jamila, who forces secrecy upon their lovemaking. But when Amin's parents discover he is consorting with Jamila, whom they consider tainted by her "dirty" grandmother Rehana's sexual unorthodoxy, they crush his spirit and end the affair.

Gurnah writes with delicacy about the complex protocols of sexual behaviour within the colonial Muslim community, teasing out the seeming injustices within its rigid moral code. Pearce's affair is relayed in muted prose, recalling the ambience of Gurnah's earlier Paradise. Amin's seduction is pieced together by his brother Rashid, who left Zanzibar for England. Rashid's voice emphasises the prejudice endured by the post-colonial diaspora which gave such sharpness to Gurnah's By the Sea. All these stories of loss combine in a poignant lament for lives overwhelmed by cultural forces. Imperial withdrawal itself holds a distinctive whiff of desertion, as though an exploitative lover abruptly moved out, leaving behind moral chaos. There are no unequivocal judgements in Gurnah's tender prose; his lovers remain buffeted by the vagaries of received propriety and historical circumstance.

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