Bloomsbury, £16.99, 279pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Last Gift, By Abdulrazak Gurnah
Friday 27 May 2011
In The Last Gift, his eighth novel, Abdulrazak Gurnah returns to the themes of exile and guilt he explored in Admiring Silence, By the Sea and Desertion. He creates psychologically complex characters who are victims of circumstance, buffeted by the vicissitudes of colonialism and the tides of global migration. They are also burdened with a sense of loss and shame borne out of their particular story of leaving and not returning. No one feels entirely innocent; all are marked, if not by a sense of culpability, then by an intimation of unspoken dread.
Gurnah is the master of the particularity of displacement: how, despite the fact that this is an increasingly common state, migration is always an individual experience. His novels show how memory evades history. Gurnah is engaged by the guilt of departure more than he is by the difficulty of belonging. His heroes are story-tellers, rewriting history, telling tall tales in order to remake and escape themselves. Their stories of flight map routes between loss and freedom, old betrayals and new loyalties.
Abbas, a middle-aged chief engineer, is happily married to Maryam, who works in a hospital canteen. They have been married for 30 years, have a daughter, Hanna, a teacher, and a son, Jamal, a PhD student, and live in Norwich. The family story that Hanna and Jamal have been told begins with their parents' first encounter, a meeting of eyes, "a long time ago, in an almost imaginary life", when Maryam was just 17 and Abbas 34, although he claimed to be 28.
He was a slim, dark sailor; she was a factory girl, living unhappily with her adoptive parents in Exeter. "Yallah, let's get out of here, that's what he said. That was the story of their love." The children's questions about his home country were met with the response that "he was a monkey from Africa". Hanna longs for "a story that has a beginning that is tolerable and open, not one "tripped with hesitations and silences". When a diabetic collapse is followed by a stroke, Abbas - driven by intimations of mortality, of unspoken shame, "tired of not talking" - tells the story of his departure from the island of Zanzibar as a young man.
The novel moves between third- and first-person narrative with understated lyricism and economy, slipping from the long past and the present to dream as it explores that enigma. While the mood is dark with loss, all the migrants in the novel succeed in building careers and having lasting relationships. Some become rich. Gurnah is unsentimental and yet warm in his depiction of family life and of Abbas's ardent if fallible paternal love.
The real revelation is that, while it is hard for Abbas and Maryam to break their silence, it even more difficult for their children to listen, or to understand them properly. Hanna "can't bear these shitty, vile immigrant tragedies", while Jamal is anxious to know the nature of his father's guilt.
Except when depicting Hanna's boyfriend Nick's racist upper middle-class family, Gurnah's characterisation is psychologically nuanced. Abbas in particular is a compelling and memorable character, a reluctant, sometimes poetic hero floating out "on a raft made from the timbers of [his] cowardice". The Last Gift reminds us that while "they could no more resist the coming than they could the tide or the electric storm", each migrant carries a very particular legacy from that journey - how it marked them, and the meanings they make of it.
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