IN Muslim east Africa in the early years of this century, a boy who dreams strange dreams is taken to work for his 'uncle', a prosperous merchant on the coast. One of the first things he learns is that the merchant is not his uncle: Yusuf has been sold into bondage to pay his father's debt. It is the beginning of a harsh apprenticeship to life, tempered by haphazard kindness and glimpses of beauty. Unasked, just for the love of it, Yusuf tends his master's garden, hidden behind high walls and watered by four streams.
Both the garden and the great world outside it are equally mysterious. The world is a dazzling but dangerous place civilised only by religion; savagery lurks below the surface and in the interior of the country, where the pagan peoples live. Tales are told of what lies beyond the known world: seas that freeze, a wall built by the giants Gog and Magog, the earthly paradise with its
gate of fire. From time to time ferocious and demanding alien figures move across this brilliant, part-real and part-imagined backcloth. They are want everything and seem incomprehensible. They are known as 'the Europeans'.
When he is 17, Yusuf accompanies his master on an ambitious trading venture into the interior. The journey, an act of hubris, assumes epic proportions as sickness, wild animals and predatory local rulers take their toll. Yet as they reach what will be the scene of the expedition's disaster, Yusuf, the dreamer, glimpses the fiery walls and turbulent waters that are said to guard paradise. Or perhaps paradise is the garden he has tended? As he returns to that garden, and his master's house, he learns their unhappy secret. It contains a threat to him, but it frees him to make a desperate choice in a direction for which the book has subtly prepared us.
This, Abdulrazak Gurnah's fourth novel, is many-layered, violent, beautiful and strange. It incorporates its disparate elements - myth, folktale, Biblical and Koranic tradition, a strong whiff of Conrad - without a dilution of its essence. Not the least of its many achievements is the bleak economy and finely judged distance with which it evokes the evils of colonialism. There are a few clumsy passages in the writing, as if the author's ear had suddenly let him down, and these lapses are the more surprising because of the discipline which otherwise rules this poetic and vividly conjured book about Africa and the brooding power of the unknown.
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