‘Paradise’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah

A many-layered, misleadingly simple tale of a young boy growing up in east Africa on the cusp of World War I, Paradise is a compassionate, strikingly memorable novel from the Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah as he quietly writes of people who are not normally heard.

Head-turningly beautiful, the teenage Yusuf finds himself as an unpaid servant to Aziz, a rich and powerful Arab merchant, in exchange for his father’s heavy debts. Even the arrival of the railway line to the isolated inland (fictional) town of Kawa cannot help turn the family-owned hotel into profit. Now living in an (unnamed but most likely Dar-es-Salaam) coastal port, a two day train journey from his home town, Yusuf works closely with the older, equally indentured Khalil in running the merchant’s shop and storerooms with the knowledge he will never see his family again.

From the simple life of rural Africa, Yusuf finds himself as a Muslim black African experiencing a precolonial urban East Africa on the cusp of change. The wealthy Aziz trades inland and along the coast, organising caravans into the interior for gold, ivory and animal skins, turning over considerable profits for himself and the Indian investors he partners with. But German interests encroach, upsetting the balance and freedom of movement with its increasing military presence. Yusuf finds himself on one such extended trading mission, journeying into the African interior to Lake Tanganyika and the dangerous encounters posed by humans and animals alike. But, gentle, intelligent and alert, the boy is favoured by Aziz as the expedition is confronted with ever increasing problems.

On return to the city, events transpire that lead Yusuf to the increasing awareness that for him (and Khalil) things would never change and, whilst seemingly benevolent, Aziz was the master of his enslavement. His beauty had placed him in a compromising position with both of the merchant’s wives: freedom and freedom of choice was not an option for the growing teenager. But then the German army arrives and with it, enforced conscription…

Paradise is a eminently readable melange of cross-cultural narratives reflecting the bustle of early 20th century East Africa with its centuries old Arab and Indian trading routes, and increasing European colonialism alongside the diversity of indigent black Africa. But Paradise is a coming-of-age tale – of Yusuf as he navigates his limited world to an awareness and self-realisation, of a blinkered Khalil who is grateful for the crumbs offered by his master. And with it comes that reader’s awareness (if needed) of what was to follow by Yusuf’s unexpected decision at the end of the novel.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fourth novel was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize but lost out to James Kelman and How late it was, how late… Gurnah himself was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021.


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