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.”