Soon after it was announced in October 2021 that Tanzanian British novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah had won the Nobel Prize in literature, a New York Times headline asked, “Why Are His Books So Hard to Find?” Though Gurnah had received acclaim in Britain, including being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, his books had never sold well in the United States, and few American readers were familiar with his work. The Nobel, of course, changed that—not just in our country, where the handful of his novels that were in print in the U.S. quickly went out of stock, but around the world. The belated arrival on our shores of Gurnah’s 10th novel, Afterlives, is a full-fledged literary event—and rightfully so, for it is a captivating, engrossing and edifying work of fiction.
Set in what is now Tanzania during and after the First World War, Afterlives, like much of the Zanzibar-born writer’s work, excavates the colonial and postcolonial history of East Africa. Gurnah offers a rare glimpse into an often-overlooked period at the beginning of the 20th century when Germany flexed its imperial muscles in the region. The narrative takes a pretty quick sweep through the relatively brief history of Deutsch-Ostafrika, providing a backdrop for the masterful portraits Gurnah paints of arresting, interconnected characters. There’s Khalifa, a good-natured clerk whose father was Indian and mother was African, and his less good-natured wife, Bi Asha. When Khalifa’s friend Ilyas goes off to fight with the Germans during the war, the couple takes in his little sister, Afiya, who has endured brutality but remains fearless. There are also German soldiers and missionaries, wealthy and unscrupulous merchants, generous and churlish neighbors—a panoply of life.
Most of all, there is Hamza, one of nature’s pure of heart. The wanderings and fate of this princely young man, whose life trajectory provides the spine of the narrative, are comparable to those of a Dickens faux-naif, akin to some of literature’s greatest picaresque lives—albeit without the roguish aspects. Meanwhile, the persistent mystery of what has happened to Ilyas, revealed only in the final pages, pointedly underscores the fates of myriad displaced victims of colonialism and war, then and still.
In the deceptively gentle texture of its depiction of everyday life among seemingly inconsequential people (who, of course, are anything but), Afterlives may remind readers of the work of another African Nobelist: Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz. Yet Gurnah has his own incomparable, distinctive voice. He is a writer who wraps his anger at historical injustice in a misleading cloak, as his characters seem to acquiesce to the inevitable but repeatedly push against what history has prescribed for them. For the many readers coming to Gurnah’s novels for the first time, Afterlives seems the perfect introduction, supplying the impetus to explore much more of his work.