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ABDULRAZAK GURNAH

The Displaced Hero

Abdulrazak Gurnah has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2021 "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents". His body of work constitutes 10 novels, of which his novel, Paradise (1994), was shortlisted for both the Booker and the Whitbread Prize, his novel By the Sea (2001), was longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and his book Desertion (2005), was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize.


The Wise Owl Team analyses Gurnah’s writing which mirrors the sense of loss of a displaced character, who struggles to sever cultural ties but is unable to let lose the fragile skeins that bind him to his roots. The analysis is made with reference to Gurnah’s novel, The Last Gift.


He liked wearing the clothes he was comfortable in and liked to think that

 if he saw himself approaching, he would recognize himself from the clothes 

he wore…the habit of mind of a stranger unreconciled to his surroundings 

dressing lightly so he could throw the coat off quickly when the time came 

to move on… (The Last Gift, 2011)


This is how Abdulrazak Gurnah describes Abbas, the protagonist of The Last Gift. And yet, the stranger unreconciled to his surroundings, the immigrant with a dislocated psyche searching for familiarity in the clothes he wore, mirrors the author’s own sense of being a rootless, cultural outcaste. Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, and stayed in Zanzibar till he was 18 years of age. A violent uprising in Zanzibar in 1964, deposing the then Sultan Jamshid din Abdullah, made him flee his birthplace, never to return. His departure was sudden, final and stealthy and severed all physical connection with his homeland, a tragic severance that is reflected in the opening lines of his book, The Last Gift, where he says succinctly: 


One day, long before the troubles, he slipped away without saying a word to 

anyone and never went back 


England, the place he sought refuge in, was different from anything he had seen before. Unhappy and homesick, he began recording scattered feelings and thoughts in his diary. He slowly became a storyteller, transferring his pain and sense of displacement on to fictional characters that were sculpted from his own flesh and blood. The trauma of colonialism, war and dislocation is the common theme that strings together all his narratives. This legacy is carried by all his protagonists like an albatross around their neck, and springs from the author’s own sense of displacement and disenchantment with his past self. Gurnah says:

The thing that motivated the whole experience of writing for me was this 

idea of losing your place in the world


From being a Nursing orderly to a professor of English Literature at the University of Kent to becoming an acclaimed author, his journey was long and fraught and the sense of guilt at having left his country for foreign shores dogged him all his life. When Abbas talks about floating on a raft made from the timbers of [his] cowardice, he is very obviously echoing Gurnah’s sense of guilt at having betrayed his culture and homeland. There is also a dawning conviction that he has failed the new generation. The mistaken belief that the new generation would meld seamlessly with a new culture if they were not smothered by their cultural antecedents, was misplaced, making the children cultural orphans. Abbas, an alter ego of the author, ruminates that the children's questions about his home country were met with the response that he was a monkey from Africa. This had made them unsure and afraid. Abbas says:


She (Maryam) says our children are here, in a strange place, and all we have given 

them are bewildering stories about who we are. She thinks it makes them unsure 

and afraid about themselves


The revelation of the past comes eventually, but is too late to save the cultural orphans adrift and apart. Hannah, Abbas’s daughter, rejects it categorically saying she can't bear these shitty, vile immigrant tragedies, while his son Jamal distances himself from it by fictionalizing it like his father. He ironically says:

Another father story. Such a predictable immigrant subject.


The Last Gift, in fact, reads like an autobiographical work. Gurnah’s sense of displacement, loss and a debilitating guilt is shouldered by Abbas. This thread of cultural loss and displacement is central to all his novels. All the characters struggle in their own way with their sense of dislocation and a soul searing schism. Anders Olsson, Chairman of Academys Nobel prize committee very rightly says that the characters peopling Gurnah’s work,

"find themselves in the gulf between cultures and continents, between the life left behind and the life to come, confronting racism and prejudice, but also compelling themselves to silence the truth or reinventing biography to avoid conflict with reality."

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