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Surprise Dr Gurnah, pleasant surprise

By Kole Omotoso
17 October 2021   |   4:11 am
Writing on Peter Handke, 2019 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, supposedly problematic because of his defense of Slobodan Milosevic, convicted of war crimes, a literary critic...

[FILES] Abdulrazak Gurnah. Photo/via REUTERS

Writing on Peter Handke, 2019 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, supposedly problematic because of his defense of Slobodan Milosevic, convicted of war crimes, a literary critic said: “The Nobel Prize in Literature is one of the more mysterious award. According to the will of the founder, Alfred Nobel, the prize is awarded to writers who ‘have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’. The first winner, French poet Sully Prudhomme in 1901, while Leo Tolstoy was alive, was awarded for his poetry’s “lofty idealism”, Norwegian third winner was awarded for “the rare purity of his poetry’s spirit” and another French writer winner for “fresh originality and true inspiration” while the first woman, Swedish writer Selma Lagerlof won in 1909, “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writing. So, for what did Abdulrazak Gurnah win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021?

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, therefore, he was born in Tanzania in 1948. Like all refugees, his story has to continuously be rewritten. He sought refuge in London in 1960 and studied English Literature at Christchurch College Canterbury ending with a Ph.D. He has edited a book on Salman Rushdie and written a number of essays on East African history. If you were African and you wanted to write, London was the place to be. The 1960s and the 1970s were the first two decades the African Writers Series, brought into existence by Heinemann Educational Books edited by Chinua Achebe. But Gurnah’s first novel was rejected by the African Writers Series. This is why Gurnah’s first novel was not published until he was 39, in 1987. His age mates were already into their second and third novels at that age. Memory of Departure was published in1987.

Virtually, all his novels were usually nominated for the Booker Prize or any of the major newspaper book awards but he never won any of these prizes. The Nobel Committee said he was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

In all, Abdulrazak Gurnah has published 10 novels, which explore the depth and breadth of the multiplicity of the colonial experience.

Paradise (1994) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award. By the Sea (2001) longlisted for the 2002 Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Desertion (?) was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Abdulrazak Gurnah commented when he was told: “It was such a complete surprise that I really had to wait until I heard it announced before I could believe it.”

Paradise is perhaps the best of the novels of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novels. Yusuf, aged twelve, is to go on a voyage with Uncle Aziz. Although the trip is rather sudden, the excitement of it all prevented Yusuf from asking his father any questions. The fact is that Yusuf is being sold to cover his father’s debt.

Gurnah’s theme is the Indian Ocean culture, Swahili language background Muslim “interiority” all aspects of African colonialism as well as post-colonialism.

I gave up predicting who could not win the Nobel Prize for Literature when V.S. Naipaul was awarded in 2001 “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel people to see the presence of suppressed histories.” My bet was with the English-Caribbean intellectual John La Rose. So, while it was a surprise that Abdulrazak Gurnah was awarded the Literature prize this year, it was not such a surprise. After all surprise is the Swedish Committee’s stock in trade. Ladbroke and the betting houses were naming big names in African literature such as Ngugi wa Thiongo and Nuruddin Farah the committee surprised us. In doing so, they burst the last of my beliefs as far as the Nobel Prize for Literature was concerned: readership. While Dr. Gurnah wished he have more readers, I always thought readership mattered. It does not. If it did the author of Things Fall Apart should have won it. Yet, Naguib Mahfouz won it and he was read throughout the Middle East. And in translation beyond the region.

What about writers who rejected the Nobel Prize? Bernard Shaw rejected the money but accepted the prize in 1926 although he was awarded for 1925. He rejected the money because he wrote: “I can forgive Nobel for inventing the dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.” His acceptance of the prize was at the persuasion of his wife Charlotte, who claimed the prize for Ireland. But Shaw refused the prize money, which was 7,000 pounds at that time. He advised the committee to use the money to finance the translation of August Strindberg from Swedish to English.

The other writer to reject the Nobel Prize, money and all, was Jean-Paul Sartre. He was awarded in 1964. He rejected it because “he always refused official distinctions and did not wish to be ‘institutionised”

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s first novel is Memory of Departure, which was published in 1987. We are informed by one critic that the manuscript had been rejected by the Heinemann African Writers Series 10 years before. Did Gurnah try other publishers in London at the time?

Memory of Departure is about Hassan an awaiting result student who has hardly survived the poverty and wretchedness of the unnamed coastal town of the author’s birth. He is persuaded by his mother to go and visit his brother in Nairobi (aka his uncle). He goes and he is amazed by life in the city. But disillusion sets in when he discovers the corruption and the filth behind the glamour of city life.

It would be of interest in terms of the biography of Gurnah to find out if, in fact, the African Writers Series did reject this first novel. Or another would-have-been first novel. It would explain the lateness of the commencement of the career of this writer whose first novel “is well-written” and “this book is still mesmerizing and Gurnah’s gift are already apparent.”