The archipelago of Zanzibar was, at various times in its history, under the rule of Persians from Shiraz, Arabs from Oman and Europeans from Portugal and Britain. The islands’ location in the Indian Ocean, along major trade routes between Africa and Asia, made them a particularly enviable prize for conquerors. With few exceptions, the settlers tended to mix with the locals until the next wave of colonizers displaced them, resulting in a merging of languages and customs that makes the country one of those places for which the term “confluence of cultures” seems to have been invented. Abdulrazak Gurnah, one of Africa’s most celebrated novelists and a native of Zanzibar, has mined his homeland’s rich history in several of his books, and he returns to it with Desertion, a novel about–what else?–colonialism and miscegenation.
Now a professor of English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent, Gurnah left Zanzibar in 1968, a few short years after the country gained independence. He chose to stay in Britain, like many other educated people of his generation. This exodus has been the focus of much of his work; all of his previous novels feature a man displaced from Zanzibar to England for political or personal reasons, an immigrant who retains ambivalent feelings about both his homeland and his adopted country. “I know I came to writing in England, in estrangement,” Gurnah wrote in the Guardian last year, “and I realise now that it is this condition of being from one place and living in another that has been my subject over the years, not as a unique experience which I have undergone, but as one of the stories of our times.” In this, his seventh novel, Gurnah revisits the theme of exile and expands it to relationships–between lovers, between families, between countries.
Desertion opens in 1899, when Hassanali, a middle-aged shopkeeper of mixed Indian and African descent, leaves his house to open the local mosque for the dawn prayer and stumbles on a fallen European, a man so exhausted that he only manages to groan when asked to identify himself. The stranger turns out to be Martin Pearce, an Arabic-speaking British historian who took part in a hunting trip but found the slaughter of animals so unbearable that he left off with his Somali guides, who later abandoned him in the wilderness. He’s thirsty, hungry and barely conscious when Hassanali takes him home to his wife and sister to care for him. Before Pearce is restored to full health, however, in comes a British government official, Frederick Turner, to whisk him away lest the natives do him any harm. Later, when Pearce finds out about the mistreatment of his native hosts, he goes back and apologizes, and it is then that he meets Hassanali’s older sister, the formidable Rehana, with whom he falls in love.
Written in the third person, the narrative lets us in successively on the inner lives of Hassanali, Turner, Rehana and Pearce, dipping into their pasts to reveal personal histories and psychological detail. We learn, for instance, that Hassanali is an unassuming man who lives in fear that his wife will grow to disdain his timidity, that Turner fancies himself a scholar of poetry and loves to quote Shelley and Rimbaud, that Rehana has grown bitter and resentful since her merchant husband abandoned her a few years earlier, that Pearce is a reflective man who is too polite to push his opinions on others. Gurnah writes beautifully and perceptively, adopting different tones for each of his characters, and lacing their stories with bits of wit and humor. For instance, Hassanali calls in a bonesetter to attend to Pearce, being careful to address the healer by his first name, for “no one called him Legbreaker to his face unless he could run very fast or did not fear an accidental fracture.”
When Pearce meets Rehana, he is struck by the “anguishing beauty of her eyes and the delicate movements of her face.” The attraction is mutual. They seem to be on the verge of a highly illicit affair, one made all the more improbable by their starkly different backgrounds and by the social constraints imposed on women in a Muslim society at the turn of the century. But after hinting at these narrative possibilities, Gurnah brings this portion of the novel to an abrupt end. The reader is robbed of the opportunity to witness the affair through the eyes of the protagonists, and a first-person narrator leaps in to discuss the implausibility of the relationship and speculate on how it could have happened:
I don’t know how it would have happened. The unlikeliness of it defeats me…. This was 1899, not the age of Pocahontas when a romantic fling with a savage princess could be described as an adventure…. Martin Pearce was not a naïve young sailor from a rural backwater or a swaggering urchin emboldened by imperial pride, who was overwhelmed by the strangeness of his surroundings or was touched into impetuousness by the beauty of an exotic jewel or a muscular amazon. What would have made an Englishman of his background–university, colonial official, a scholar–begin something like that with the sister of a shopkeeper in a small town on the East African coast?
This is not just a rhetorical question. One would indeed like to know how these two managed to carry on a relationship, but Gurnah appears to be more interested in the effect of the affair on succeeding generations than in the affair itself. The plot jumps forward in time to the 1950s, the years immediately preceding independence. Returning to the third-person narrative, Gurnah introduces us to a modern Zanzibari family whose three children, Amin, Farida and Rashid, are invested by their parents with all the hopes a young nation might have for its future. The family appears to have no relation to the characters we have met before, and we must wait until this second story unfolds in order to know what happened to Rehana and Pearce, and how the two narrative threads connect.
Along the way, Gurnah explores the imperial takeover of Zanzibar by the British. Frederick Turner, for instance, is an unabashed colonialist who thinks that the British Empire is not only good for Africa but also different from other empires before it, because it is “moral.” After all, he argues, the British outlawed slavery and developed the land, and so have the mission of governing Africans, who are so clearly incapable of doing so on their own. “What passes for work in this town is men sitting under a tree waiting for the mangoes to ripen,” he notes. His friend Burton, however, is a Kurtz-like character who joins the laborers “in their drumming and dancing,” while at the same time “quite sure that the future for British possessions in Africa was the gradual decline and disappearance of the African population, and its replacement by European settlers.” Turner is not the genocidal maniac that Burton is, but he nonetheless wonders whether there is any truth to the notion that “blacks have a natural instinct” to serve.
Pearce, by contrast, wanders into this world with a profound disgust for the entire colonial enterprise and instead devotes his time in Zanzibar and elsewhere to the study of the natives’ history and language. Turner disagrees with Pearce’s approach. His mission, as he understands it, is to govern the natives, not to try to understand them. Of his previous position in India, he says proudly, “I can stir up a bit of Hindustani myself, especially if I don’t have to understand what the other fellow is saying. Well, it’s impressive nevertheless.” In Turner’s world, language loses its purpose of communication and instead becomes a means of dominance and oppression.
The debate among these three representatives of colonialism (the brute Burton, the pragmatic Turner, the Orientalist Pearce) includes statements like this one, made by Turner:
Here we are, 1899, what thought of the new century? Will we do better than our resolute predecessors? Will this place be cleared of its natives, and be turned into a kind of America, or will we see these chumps become civilised and hard-working subjects?
Although the language today might be more oblique, the sentiment that “these chumps” can and should be civilized is still very much a part of the imperial enterprise. In October 2001, for instance, Max Boot declared in The Weekly Standard that the “historic war aim” of the American invasion of Iraq was “to turn [it] into a beacon of hope for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East.” (Never mind that half of Iraq’s people will now be second-class citizens, thanks to the institution of an Islamic republic in this formerly secular country.) And just as Turner believes that the British Empire will not go the way of other empires, so, too, do the neocons in the current Administration believe that the American adventure in the Middle East is somehow different, because more “moral,” than those before it.
The Zanzibaris, for their part, regard the foreigners who have come to rule them with a mix of suspicion, fear and awe. When Hassanali finds Pearce lying on the ground, he asks, in one of the book’s many double-entendres: “Subhanallah, who are you? Are you human or spirit?” Pearce’s arrival leads to a brief fight among the mosque-goers over who should have the privilege to take in the foreigner, the mzungu. Hassanali wins the honor, since he found the man and it is his Muslim duty to care for him until he recuperates. Almost immediately, though, Hassanali begins to worry that his home is not comfortable enough for the British man. He lets Pearce have the bedroom while he sleeps in the hallway, and “when the mzungu had regained his senses, they could ask him what he wished them to do.” And indeed, neither Hassanali nor his friends bother to discuss the takeover of their lands in the same terms as Turner, Burton and Pearce. Rather, they appear to be concerned with surviving, with making do with what they have.
Rehana, confined to her home and to the homes of her friends, seems at first to be focused on affairs of the heart. Yet she turns out to be the most perceptive observer of the foreigners who suddenly appear in her home. Pearce doesn’t strike her as a regular mzungu, but instead he is “more like complication and confusion.” In Turner she sees “the snarling figure from the stories, the destroyer of nations.” It is not Hassanali but Rehana who dares to stand up to Turner’s abuse and to his accusations that they stole the sick man’s belongings.
Gurnah’s chapter on Rehana is his first attempt at writing from a female point of view. He has shown an interest in women’s issues throughout his work (inheritance laws in By the Sea, arranged marriages in Admiring Silence, sexual bondage in Paradise), but taking on the female voice here allows him to paint an unusually complex portrait of this and other female characters. The women in Desertion range from the independent to the submissive, the sexually repressed to the unabashedly liberated, the educated to the ignorant, the pragmatic to the romantic. Gurnah seems to delight in turning stereotypes on their head. For instance, Farida, Amin and Rashid’s sister, fails to get into high school and is eager to stay at home and work as a dressmaker, much to the dismay of her educated mother. Later, however, Farida writes and publishes collections of poetry that neither of her schooled brothers could have crafted.
The second part of Desertion focuses mostly on Amin, Rashid and Farida, who are portrayed against the tumultuous backdrop of a country heading toward independence. As a young boy, Rashid teaches himself Italian by reading books given to him by an uncle, a customs agent. He doesn’t understand what the words mean, but he still refuses to address anyone in his family in any language but Italian. Eventually, everyone around him starts to believe that the boy does speak Italian, which earns him the respect of his elders. Aping the language of Europeans, even without understanding, confers power and respect. When Rashid goes to high school he excels in most subjects, but particularly in English. Like most products of a colonial education, Rashid begins to see himself through the lens of the outsiders. He grows up despising his culture and feeling, in a sense, that he belongs elsewhere. “The more complex [Rashid’s] understanding became, the more it seemed that this world became his.” Not surprisingly, Rashid leaves for Britain to pursue his education, only to find himself struggling to fit into a culture he thought he knew so well.
Amin doesn’t share Rashid’s academic ambitions. He is content to follow in his parents’ footsteps and go to the local teacher-training college. But he dares to fall in love with Jamila, who turns out to be Rehana’s granddaughter. The story of their courtship, constrained as it is by the conservative society in which they live and by the fact that it takes place during Ramadan, makes for one of the novel’s most exquisitely written chapters.
That night he dreamed about her again, and dreamed about the beast squatting on her. He was that beast, he thought when he woke up. He had been the beast all along, but had refused to recognize himself, an ugly obsessive creature trembling with feelings and desires that he would do better to suppress and deny.
The great irony of Amin’s life is that his own parents defied their traditions by having a love marriage and finishing their studies before getting married. Out of loyalty to his parents, Amin abandons his lover, a decision that changes the course of his life, turning him into an exile in his own country, unable to connect with anyone or anything.
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.