Abdulrazak Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday. He is the fifth African to receive the prize and the first in nearly two decades.
In its announcement, the Nobel committee praised “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
Gurnah was born in Zanzibar and left for England at age 18, and both places figure greatly in his work. Many of his novels draw on the themes of exile, displacement and fractured identities.
Here are the Times reviews of Gurnah’s books.
Set on the East African coast, Gurnah’s first novel follows a young man struggling under a totalitarian regime, before being sent to live with a wealthy uncle in Kenya. Our reviewer called it “a compelling study of one man’s struggle to find a purpose for his life and a haunting portrait of a traditional society collapsing under the weight of poverty and rapid change.”
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, this novel opens in East Africa before World War I and follows 12-year-old Yusuf, who has been handed over to a wealthy merchant as an indentured servant. Throughout the book, Yusuf recounts his excursions across the continent along with the natural life, other tribes and threats they encounter. Our reviewer called it “a poignant meditation on the nature of freedom and the loss of innocence, for both a single sensitive boy and an entire continent.”
An unnamed narrator flees Zanzibar in the 1960s for England, where he soon falls in love with an Englishwoman and begins a family. As he battles the racism he encounters there, he also wrestles with self-loathing for his attempts to blend in. The book is “corrosively funny and relentless,” our reviewer wrote. “Gurnah skillfully depicts the agony of a man caught between two cultures, each of which would disown him for his links to the other.”
Fleeing lawlessness and corruption, Saleh Omar, a 65-year-old merchant from Zanzibar, applies for asylum in England. The book details casual cruelty from British immigration officials and a dystopian bureaucracy that underpins the resettlement efforts, as Saleh is eventually shuttled to a quiet seaside town. By chance, he meets the son of the man who caused great suffering for Saleh and his family, and their eventual friendship is a reconciliation of their family histories. As our reviewer wrote: “It is extraordinarily moving when Saleh Omar does find his own kind of refuge in friendship, an asylum made of experience that is shared.”
Two ill-fated love stories entwine in this novel: In 1899, a British adventurer and “anti-Empire wallah” is taken in by an East African shopkeeper and falls in love with his sister Rehana, causing a scandal. Decades later, a Zanzibari academic recounts his own family’s woes: how his brother fell in love with Rehana’s granddaughter.
Growing up in Zanzibar, Salim is never sure why his family broke apart or why, as he says early in the novel, “my father did not want me.” Later, after a stellar academic performance gives Salim the opportunity to study in England, he collapses under the weight of his family expectations. Our reviewer noted that “even the minor characters in this novel have richly imagined histories that inflect their smallest interactions — one of the loveliest pleasures of this book, and a choice that makes its world exceptionally full.”