A Nobel Laureate Revisits the Great War’s African Front

Armies, like writers, prey on orphans and misfits. Scenes of military recruitment have been a literary staple at least since Bulgarian soldiers kidnapped Voltaire’s Candide, but few are more bleakly memorable than the one at the end of “Paradise” (1994), by the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. It’s around the time of the First World War. Yusuf, a runaway servant in what’s now Tanzania, wanders into a camp abandoned by askari, or local troops, who have occupied his coastal town in the name of Germany. He finds wild dogs eating the soldiers’ excrement, and, when they return his gaze, experiences a shock of recognition. “The dogs had known a shit-eater when they saw one,” Yusuf decides, and promptly joins the askari.

The grotesque analogy poses a painful question: How did so many colonial subjects end up fighting for their conquerors, living, as it were, on the leftovers of empire? More than a million Africans served in the two World Wars, deployed both in Europe and in their own occupied continent. Gurnah, who grew up in Zanzibar, knew that one of his relatives had been conscripted as a porter into Germany’s Schutztruppe. Another had enlisted with the British, in the King’s African Rifles. Yet scarcely any testimony survived to account for the experiences of soldiers like them. In “Paradise,” his lapidary fourth novel, he tried to envision what kind of life might lead to such an act of desertion.

The novel centers on a rubber- and ivory-trading expedition led by Yusuf’s “uncle” Aziz. He is, in reality, a sharkish merchant who has seized the boy from his parents through a predatory loan. Their imaginary bond keeps Yusuf complacent during their long march into the continent. But when the master’s caravan fails—spectacularly, in an ironic revision of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”—the slave takes flight, disgusted with a world where “vengeful acquisitiveness had forced even simple virtues into tokens of exchange and barter.” Yusuf’s decision to join the Schutztruppe is a gloomy vision of exchanging one oppressive system for another at the dawn of colonial rule.

Gurnah has spent more than three decades chronicling the Swahili coast and its diaspora, in wry, wandering fiction whose understated style belies its narrative sophistication. A novelist in the old-fashioned school of fateful separations and buried family secrets, he is interested not only in the experience of displacement but also in its myriad causes: debt, shame, misguided ambition, and, especially, the toxic entanglement of kinship and dependence. “Paradise,” which was short-listed for the Booker Prize, exemplifies the typical arc of his novels, following a young man from provincial innocence to worldly disenchantment. But it also leaves Yusuf’s fate as an askari entirely to the imagination. How did African soldiers fare in the wars between their colonizers? And, once the smoke had cleared and the borders had shifted, how did they face coming home?

Gurnah’s most recent novel, “Afterlives”—published in the U.K. in 2020, and now available in the United States—revisits the era in a spiritual sequel to “Paradise.” It revolves around a love story between two young runaways. Afiya is an orphan from a rural village, whose brother entrusts her to cruel neighbors when he goes to fight for the Schutztruppe. Hamza, an escaped servant, also becomes an askari, joining a brutal brawl for the continent at a time when “every bit of it belonged to Europeans, at least on a map: British East Africa, Deutsch-Ostafrika, África Oriental Portuguesa, Congo Belge.” Their search for a place in the world unfolds against the monumental absurdities of empire:

As [the askari] told their swaggering stories and marched across the rain-shadow plains of the great mountain, they did not know that they were to spend years fighting across swamps and mountains and forests and grasslands, in heavy rain and drought, slaughtering and being slaughtered by armies of people they knew nothing about: Punjabis and Sikhs, Fanti and Akan and Hausa and Yoruba, Kongo and Luba, all mercenaries who fought the Europeans’ wars. . . . It was astonishing to the askari to see the great variety of people whose existence they had not even known about.

A crop of recent narratives has explored Africa’s overlooked role in the World Wars. Scholastique Mukasonga’s “Kibogo” is set in a Rwanda that’s being starved to feed the Allies in their struggle against Nazi Germany. David Diop’s “At Night All Blood Is Black” follows two Senegalese tirailleurs into the trenches of no man’s land. “Afterlives” focusses on the East African campaign of 1914-18. Those who fought in it came from all over Africa—men torn from their communities who tore up others in turn. But the Schutztruppe could also be a realm of social opportunity, where “askariboys” from the ranks of the poor and the powerless could become big men.

Gurnah’s novel interrogates the costs and rewards of this violent, cosmopolitan world and its circumstantial solidarities. When Hamza learns German from a lieutenant who recognizes him as a kindred spirit, their closeness elicits suspicions of treachery in the ranks. A postwar return to his coastal home town brings new struggles for acceptance, especially once Hamza meets Afiya and the childless couple who have rescued her from abuse. For everyone, a longing for togetherness is bedeviled by old shames and secrets. “I’m not sure there is a benign form of belonging,” Gurnah has said. “Even if you stay put.”

When Gurnah won last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, there was little consensus on how to categorize his dark-horse victory. He was the fourth Black writer to win the award, but the universe of his fiction was far removed from familiar histories centered on the Atlantic. He was only the seventh African-born laureate, but some cavilled that he was, more pertinently, one more Anglophone writer based in the U.K. Others wondered why he’d edged out a fellow East African and a longtime favorite, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, known for his insistence that writers from the continent should use their indigenous languages. Even in Tanzania, people struggled with the meaning of Gurnah’s achievement. Could they claim a writer whom their country had in many ways driven out?

Zanzibar is a small island that is also a major crossroads for Africa, Asia, and Europe. It is one of the historic centers of Swahili civilization, a loose network of coastal societies stretching from Somalia to Mozambique, whose language serves as East Africa’s lingua franca. Swahili cities were shaped by more than a millennium of trade with the Arabian peninsula, embracing Islam and developing a distinctive mixture of African, Arab, and South Asian cultures. Their wealth also attracted the envy of empires overseas. Portugal seized Zanzibar in the sixteenth century, but later lost it to the Sultan of Oman, whose descendants turned the island into a base for conquering swaths of the mainland.

Under the Omanis, Zanzibar grew rich selling spices, ivory, and slaves, mostly non-Muslims from the interior, whom the island’s élites derided as washenzi, or uncivilized. The island reached the peak of its power in the late nineteenth century, when the legendary trader Tippu Tip—Uncle Aziz from “Paradise” writ large—established armed settlements as far west as present-day Congo. His colonial designs ran afoul of rivals in Europe, as they launched their Scramble for Africa. Zanzibar lost its territory to the Germans and then to the British, who reduced its once mighty sultan to a figurehead. “New maps were made, complete maps, so that every inch was accounted for, and everyone now knew who they were,” Gurnah writes, sardonically, in “By the Sea” (2001). “Or at least who they belonged to.”

He was born, in 1948, in Stone Town, Zanzibar’s nineteenth-century capital, where his father traded in fish. Their neighborhood was abuzz with the tongues of the Indian Ocean—Swahili, Somali, Kutchi, and others. He grew up on Hollywood films, Indian songs, the distinctive taarab music of the island, and the rock and roll of Elvis Presley. His first language was Swahili, quickly supplemented by Arabic and, later, the English of a colonial education. “By that time I had already been exposed to complex narrative traditions in the Qur’an school [and] in Qasidas,” or traditional odes, he recalled in an autobiographical essay. “I had listened to stories at home told by grannies and aunties, I had heard ribald and forbidden stories in the streets. I cannot describe what a rich and unforgettable body of work all this amounted to.”

In 1964, a month after independence from Great Britain, Zanzibar was convulsed by a revolution. The sultanate was abolished, the old “foreign” élite—many of whom had been African for generations—was suppressed, and the island’s new government joined what had been Tanganyika, forming the United Republic of Tanzania. Thousands of Zanzibaris were killed, and many others left. Gurnah, who saw little future under the revolutionary government, moved to the U.K. with his brother in 1968.

They met with a chilly reception. South Asian emigrants were arriving in Britain from across East Africa, where, as in Zanzibar, many independence governments were persecuting them as accomplices of empire. (Freddie Mercury, who was also born in Stone Town, came in the same wave.) Racist abuse was a part of everyday life; it was the year that Enoch Powell, a conservative member of Parliament, delivered his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, warning about the dire consequences of large-scale immigration. “We had no idea we had arrived in the middle of an exodus,” Gurnah recalled in a 2001 Guardian piece. “But there was no going back.” He earned an undergraduate degree at a teacher-training college in Canterbury, and later studied literature at the University of Kent, where he received a Ph.D., in 1982, before joining the faculty. His first years in England felt “strangely weightless,” he observed, intensifying the “sense of a life left behind, of people casually and thoughtlessly abandoned, a place and a way of being lost to me forever.” The distance inspired him to write. In 1987, he published his début novel, “Memory of Departure.”

“My kid, who is also a giant clown, could do that.”

Cartoon by Hilary Allison

It’s a story of truncated youth set in a squalid, post-revolutionary Zanzibar—and an apologia, of sorts, for emigration. The adolescent narrator, Hassan, endures his brother’s death, his tyrannical father’s alcoholism, his sister’s turn to prostitution, and the foreclosure of his Arab family’s future by the new government. He leaves the island to pursue an inheritance from a rich uncle in Nairobi, but a romantic transgression forces him to leave Kenya for a life at sea. Despite some abrupt plot twists and lurid melodrama, the novel established a pattern that Gurnah continued to refine: a ceaseless shuttling between the claustrophobia of home and the loneliness of exile.

Many of Gurnah’s novels go something like this: A young man from a declining family, ruined by debt, vice, or government repression, leaves home because he wants to seek his fortune, or simply because he has no choice. Abroad, he’s forced to contend with revelations from the past, often by confronting an older relative who turns out to be a cause of his own displacement. Grievances are aired, skeletons tumble from closets, and the protagonist’s origin story proves to be far more complicated than he previously knew. Yet it’s no longer possible to put things right. The mother is dead, the beloved has married another, or the country of childhood has changed beyond recognition. (Dickens, with all his financial riddles and tragically belated disclosures, is a clear influence.) With any luck, though, there’s still time to decipher what happened, and to seek solace in the telling.

At first, Gurnah wrote about the immigrant experience separately from East Africa. “Memory of Departure” was followed by two novels set in England, “Pilgrims Way” (1988) and “Dottie” (1990). Only with “Paradise” did he begin to combine these spheres of narrative, delving into the internal displacements of his homeland’s history. The impetus was partially corrective. As a scholar of post-colonial, and especially African, literature, he began to realize that few of its landmarks reflected the reality of his birthplace. The paradigm of a local culture’s collision with Western modernity (say, in the forest village of Chinua Achebe’s “Arrow of God”) had little relevance to a multiracial region whose calendar turned on the rhythms of trade in the Indian Ocean. The hybridity of the Swahili coast meant that Gurnah couldn’t embrace the back-to-the-land radicalism of a writer like Ngũgĩ. But neither did he share the attitude of an émigré such as V. S. Naipaul, whose disaffection with his homeland had soured into something like renunciation. Gurnah’s challenge was to depict a home defined by journeys and losses long preceding his own.

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