Love and Betrayal in Colonial Africa
Desertion features several cross-cultural affairs, and they all seem doomed in one way or another. Hassanali's father is an Indian man who was rejected by his community for marrying an African woman. Pearce and Rehana set up house in Mombasa, but despite professions of love he doesn't marry her. When his term ends in the colonies, he leaves her and their child behind. And although Jamila lives in the relatively more enlightened era of the 1950s, she still cannot escape the stigma of her mixed blood.
Gurnah's interest in race is not new, of course. In his previous novel, the haunting By the Sea, an elderly asylum-seeker to the United Kingdom experiences racism from the moment he arrives at the airport, where an immigration officer relieves him of a precious box of incense, the only reminder of the life he had to leave behind. During his detention he also notices the casual hatred that a group of Algerians have for a fellow refugee, an Angolan. "In their eyes he was a black man, a lesser son of Adam than them, capable only of a subservient rage and an unreflecting resilience." But in Desertion Gurnah appears to go a step further, suggesting that the notion of race is a construct of power, an artificial way of defining--and dividing--humanity. Living in England, Rashid succumbs to the logic of race, even as he recognizes its illogic:
Soon I began to say black people and white people, like everyone else, uttering the lie with increasing ease, conceding the sameness of our difference, deferring to a deadening vision of a racialised world. For by agreeing to be black and white, we also agree to limit the complexity of possibility, we agree to mendacities that for centuries served and will continue to serve crude hungers for power and pathological self-affirmations.
It might be objected that Rashid's thoughts recall the language of a professor of postcolonial studies like Gurnah, and in such moments Gurnah's characters risk becoming the mouthpiece of their creator. Fortunately, these didactic lapses are rare, in what is for the most part a lyrical, intensely felt work of the imagination.
The desertion of the title should, by now, be fairly straightforward. White men desert their native lovers, Muslim men desert liberated partners, and young, educated men desert Zanzibar for the comforts of Britain. But there is another kind of desertion that haunts the novel: the British colonial experience. Indeed, Gurnah seems to suggest that Britain "deserted" its colonies, like the islands of Zanzibar, before the time was right. In a postcolonial novel this might seem like a startling assertion, but it is not new to Gurnah. One of the main characters in By the Sea remarks that he married in 1963, "a year before the British departed in a huff and left us to the chaos and violence that attended the end of their empire." Gurnah appears to fault the British for not living up to their responsibilities, for disrupting a social order without being asked and then leaving the resulting problems for others to solve. One could even argue that the disjointed narrative in Desertion is deliberate, that it is Gurnah's way of reflecting a world in which relationships between people, between countries, are interrupted before they have run their course. Seen in this light, the novel has a staying power that belies its quietness.