Thursday, June 20, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Abdulrazak Gurnah and the stories we don’t tell

Update : 24 Dec 2022, 03:57 PM

Abdulrazak Gurnah's The Last Gift had fallen into my hands by accident. 

Even after the Zanzibar-born ethnically-Arab British writer won the Nobel prize -- in a victory for diasporic and POC writers in English everywhere -- his works were too far down my TBR. I did not quite feel in the state of mind to deal with yet another story about displacement, migration, lost identities, nostalgia for a home you can never go back to; another story about what it means to live your life as an outsider or in-betweener, as an English person who will never be fully seen as English no matter what it says on the citizenship documents. 

Those of us born outside of the Anglosphere have been told from the beginning that English is our “second-language,” and we are always put on the back-foot, with native-speaker supremacy being used as a weapon against outsiders. However much we may excel at adaptation, however much we may improve our second-language skills to the point where we, as Nirad C Chaudhuri would have said, beat the British at their own game, there remains that small but vital piece that remembers and longs for home. 

That vital piece is our beating heart, and it only beats louder as we near the end. Like a child calling out for their mother in moments of extreme helplessness, in those moments of finality we dream of home. But that home is long gone, except perhaps in the form of an old man's memory. And sometimes, by the time we are ready to tell a story, it might already be too late.

My father, himself currently a brown-skinned migrant to an English-speaking country (just like both the author Gurnah and Gurnah's protagonist Abbas), handed me the book on his last trip to Dhaka shortly before flying back again. He is in his mid-70s, so I take nothing for granted during these departures, and one cannot blame me for thinking there was something ominous about the fact that the book he handed to me was called The Last Gift. 

The heavy-going subject matter I gleaned from the synopsis made me groan, but nevertheless I mentally rolled up my pant-legs and waded in. Immediately, I was hooked, wincing with recognition every few pages. By the end, I felt gutted. 

The Nobel Prize Committee has indeed done a noble job by shining a bright light on Gurnah, a novelist many had never heard of until very recently, and this is no surprise. Gurnah does not court attention, and his books do not show off his prowess. 

Unlike Salman Rushdie, or say, Marlon James, Gurnah does not rub his skills in your face, but lays it all out carefully in sparse, thoughtful prose. In that regard, he is closer to the pared-down but devastating style of JM Coetzee. Both Coetzee and Gurnah, not surprisingly, come from that academic tradition of the “English department,” and so are less interested in tearing up the rulebook than they are in writing about the important themes of life with the quiet confidence of true grizzled veterans. This is a novel that requires a good deal of emotional maturity on part of the reader -- younger readers may be quite bored.

Every life can be a novel, but not everyone can tell stories

When we first meet Gurnah's hero Abbas, the 63-year-old has collapsed from late-onset diabetes. Though he remains lucid, he is rendered unable to speak, and unable to take care of himself; the burden falling to his much younger wife Maryam, with a large part of the emotional weight falling on his two children Jamal and Hanna. 

In his bedbound state, Abbas retreats more and more into his memories, back to his pre-migrant life as a sailor, back to his scandalous childhood where he was inflicted deep emotional wounds. In his last days, all he can think about is his story, which he has never fully told anyone, not even his wife, certainly not his children. 

But nothing can stay buried forever, so the stories keep trying to resurface even though Abbas has lost his ability to speak or write. Without being too on-the-nose about it, Gurnah asks that most universal of questions: What is a man in the end if not the story of the life he has lived? 

Abbas' memories are not easy. He has been wracked with guilt and shame over many of them, and like countless other well-behaved immigrants, he has done his best over the decades to fit in, to assimilate. Perhaps to some degree to erase his stained past. The irony of getting older is that we simultaneously move away from our past, feeling more and more detached from it, but then the formative memories keep coming back with renewed intensity. 

And so it happens with Abbas. Though he cannot speak, we the readers are told his innermost thoughts through the authorial magic of Gurnah, who allows us to climb inside Abbas' head. We learn about his first love, the traumatic betrayal, the fall from grace, the loss of home, the nomadic life of first running away from anything and everything, then looking for a home. 

Then we learn about how he settled into his new life in the UK and had a family. His children grew up British, for the most part successful and fairly well-balanced, though the children also have their own questions about identity -- more and more as they get older. From the children's perspective, this life in Britain is all they know, but where does it all come from? What is its foundation? 

Neither Jamal nor Hanna (nor their mother Maryam, for that matter) have ever properly sat down to ask Abbas these questions. They simply accepted him as the silent, boring, working class father with typically immigrant aspirations -- be successful, keep your head down, and (to Hanna) don't dress provocatively when going out because what will the neighbours say? 

On the surface, a man like Abbas does not appear at all interesting, and judgmental in that most hackneyed way, and it is not hard to see why his children over the years had little patience for him. Second-generation immigrants often see their parents as a bit of an embarrassment -- Hanna certainly felt its bitter sting. Jamal had a more complicated perspective, as he grappled with his own identity as a Muslim, but still, the full story always eluded him. Will the story ever be told? Or is it doomed to die along with Abbas' inner world after he takes his last breath? 

You can never go back

In the new season of the hit anthology show The White Lotus, we see three generations of Italian-Americans taking a vacation in their ancestral home of Sicily. They do some amateur sleuthing to discover a house with people of the same last name, hoping to reconnect with long-lost relatives. The native Sicilians, suspicious of random Americans claiming kinship, shoo them off with threats. 

The grandfather (played masterfully by F Murray Abraham) is despondent at dinner, and his son (played by Michael Imperioli) asks him what the matter is. He replies: “There is no homecoming. Not for me. Not anymore.” It is a fleeting piece of dialogue, with unbearable weight: No matter how far we go, and how adventurous a life we live, we yearn to come home to embrace that motherland. 

But where is that motherland? It is no actual place, for sure. That is the reality of a world always in flux. People die. Landscapes change. The neighbourhood you grew up in is probably now unrecognizable to you, with lakesides filled up with ugly real estate developments, your childhood home long torn down to make way for residential high-rises, and the wooded area you used to escape to in order to daydream is now a factory area that constantly creates air and noise pollution with no apology. 

Maybe these are technically the same geographical coordinates of your youth, but in every other respect, the place is alien. There is no homecoming, you can never go back. But the more the reality of our past slips away from us, the more it comes back in vivid colours and smells, the decades seem to collapse into moments, and there we are again -- a vulnerable child, longing for acceptance.

An obvious narrative choice for The Last Gift would have been to restrict the narration to Abbas' perspective, to tell us, the reader, a story that Abbas is unable to tell anyone else. But what Gurnah does is far more interesting. He switches the perspective to Abbas' wife Maryam, then to his son Jamal, then to his daughter Hanna. Jamal is embracing his Muslim identity in a world that he knows will never fully embrace him, and he is trying to figure out his own place in British society. Hanna, on the other hand, wants to shed all that uneasy immigrant baggage and just be British -- she changes her name to Anna and dates a man who is ancestrally British, ie more British than the kind of British she is, and tries her best to get along with his family, who appear a tad latently racist. 

But in the aftermath of Abbas' health catastrophe, all three members of his immediate family are brought into a headlong collision with their own senses of self, and a long overdue reckoning. There are no quick fixes here, and no warm and fuzzy ending. Certainly, Gurnah does not make it easy for the reader, and that is part of the book's immense power.


In the end, does it even matter?

Personal circumstances, no doubt, amplified the effect of The Last Gift on me. Around the time that I was reading it, I had been going back and forth to the hospital a lot to accompany my father-in-law, also in his 70s. He eventually found himself in the ICU, and we visitors were stranded outside the closed doors, only getting occasional, fleeting updates. 

His situation seemed to parallel that of the fictional Abbas for me. They certainly had much in common. My father-in-law, an ex-military man and former bodybuilder is your typical “strong, silent type.” His stories are often told with a teaspoon of spice and a dash of braggadocio, and charming though it all is, I have often felt that the truth has eluded me. He rarely complains, and almost never shows vulnerability, even when his illness or physical pains act up. 

In many ways, then, he is the opposite of those of us who call ourselves “writers” -- we wear our embarrassments like a badge of honour, and simply cannot shut up. But even men like him have stories and memories as rich and detailed as any, but their nature prevents them from dwelling on them or fleshing them out, warts and all. 

When he was in the ICU, I wondered about his stories that must have remained untold, and all the other stories floating around, all over the hospital in all the wards. We live in a world of books, and novelists are the new rockstars, but for every life that gets to satisfactorily explain itself, talking and talking with marvellous eloquence, how many stories are out there that we don't tell?

Abak Hussain is a journalist and Contributing Editor to MW Bangladesh.  

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