I first came across the work of the Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah when I was studying for field exams in post-colonial literature, in 2009, and what I remember most is the way his writing short-circuited my scathing analytical response, which had grown to monstrous proportions. At that point in my graduate career, I couldn’t get through a page of fiction without scrawling a mess of question marks and exclamation points and inane comments in the margins. But I sank into “Paradise,” Gurnah’s historical novel of colonial East Africa, published in 1994, like a person who still knew how to read for pleasure. My clearest memories of the book have to do with its sensory richness, its flashes of eroticism, and the protagonist’s dreamy interiority—though the novel’s evocation of a web of multilingual communities that are threatened by an encroaching colonial monoculture insured that I had lots to note down once I picked up my pen again.
A few years later, I taught Gurnah’s sixth novel, “By the Sea,” for a class on post-colonial literature. That book, which depicts the fraught relationship between two Zanzibari men who reunite in England years after their first encounter, fit in perfectly with the course themes of history, identity, and memory—but in my own (admittedly imperfect) memory, it didn’t teach as well as I’d expected, for reasons that are only to its credit. “By the Sea” is long and immersive and character-focussed; it’s a novel that asks to be experienced rather than argued about.
When Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in Literature, on Thursday, I took the opportunity to blow off my other deadlines and read his 2017 novel, “Gravel Heart,” which I chose because a) I hadn’t yet read it; b) I was curious about the title; and c) it was available on Kindle, and I didn’t feel like tangling with the newly Gurnah-curious for what were likely the few remaining copies of his work at the Strand bookstore, on Broadway. I recommend “Gravel Heart” as a melancholy, evocative, and occasionally very funny way to spend an autumn afternoon, though I think the Nobel Committee was probably right to name “Paradise” as Gurnah’s major work.
“Gravel Heart” begins with an arresting, somewhat deceptive confidence: “My father did not want me,” the narrator, Salim, announces in the first line. The reasons behind Salim’s perceived loss of paternal love are hinted at in a narrative that trips backward and forward in time, and the book often seems to wander far from what is ostensibly its central mystery. Then Salim’s father returns in the final third to tie the strands of the novel together. In Gurnah’s characteristic style, the narrative is woven through with what can feel like digressions: meditations on photographs, letters, and other artifacts; sensory flashbacks, anecdotes, hypotheticals—all the scattered aide-mémoire that are relied on by those who are displaced. Salim’s father’s story, meanwhile, is told in a compelling, propulsive rush. It’s the kind of clean, plot-driven tale created by people who have spent their whole lives polishing an answer to a fundamentally unanswerable question: Why did this happen to me?
Salim leaves Africa as a teen-ager to live in England, where he decides, in the face of strong familial opposition, to study literature, and he remains there for most of the novel, coming home and confronting his father only after fruitlessly contemplating the rift from afar for years. Toward the end of the book, after Salim’s father has concluded his explanation, Salim asks him, “Did you ever read ‘Measure for Measure’?” and, when his father says he’s never fully understood Shakespeare (“I could not get past the zounds and exeunts and harks and rummage in yonder prologue”), Salim launches into an exhaustive plot summary, the point of which is that their family’s tragedy mirrors the events in “Measure for Measure” and yet his father’s role in their own story is so minor that he has no equivalent counterpart in Shakespeare’s play.
Salim’s father, as one might imagine, seems nonplussed at his son’s intellectual-critical response to his emotional unburdening. “I will not bother to read it then,” he says, “if there is no part for me.” One might argue that this exchange is meant to illustrate how the disproportionate cultural weight of the Western literary canon ends up bludgeoning other stories out of existence, even as it tries to embrace them—or, perhaps, how alienating it can be to search for yourself in a tradition that fails to acknowledge your experience as real. Both interpretations suggest that Gurnah, like so many other authors who choose to write in English despite its not being their first language, has thought deeply about questions of tradition, influence, and canon.
In a 2004 essay, “Writing and Place,” Gurnah notes, “I believe that writers come to writing through reading, that it is out of the process of accumulation and accretion, of echoes and repetition, that they fashion a register that enables them to write.” He goes on to trace the evolution of the reading that enabled his own register: his limited access, growing up in Zanzibar, to literature written in his first language, Kiswahili; the alienating British-colonial education that he received there; the Quranic learning that took place in his local mosque; and his self-directed reading in English, after he fled Zanzibar for England as a young refugee.
Because I believe in the study of literature, I believe that to appreciate the work of Abdulrazak Gurnah, or any writer, we have to have some knowledge of the tradition to which the writer belongs—to have read some of the books that gave rise to his or her register. Otherwise, how can we understand what the writer is trying to accomplish, the voices she is speaking back to, her allusions and intertextualities? Because of the extraordinary cultural dominance of English, English speakers nearly always have access to at least some portion of the tradition that has shaped the writing that wins the Nobel Prize. Even authors who don’t write in English will have read at least a handful of the English-language classics, if only in translation. This makes it easier to forget all the other streams of influence: the Kiswahili poetry, the Islamic tales, even the fusty British-colonial schoolbooks that shaped generations of writers all across the globe.
Each year, the Nobel Committee plucks a single author from the vast stream of world literature and, by anointing one, implicitly raises that writer above all the rest, in a way that is obviously misleading. There are too many writers, too many registers, with too many vital differences between them—and no single metric by which all authors can be meaningfully compared. But, by claiming the authority to construct a world canon, the committee invites us to take a closer look at our own individually constructed traditions, the reading that has built our registers, whether we consider ourselves writers or not.
We learn so much about ourselves in that instant in which a prize-winner is announced, and we catch ourselves thinking, Ah, it should have been X who won. And, when we’re at the Strand, jostling other readers for the last used copy of “Paradise” (or ordering a copy of “By the Sea” on Amazon, where it is now selling for nine hundred and seventy-four dollars), we can use that opportunity to grab another book or two that might deepen our appreciation of Gurnah’s register—perhaps a collection of Kiswahili poetry or travel narratives, or “The Thousand and One Nights,” or a novel by another great East African writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o . . . or even Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” which I have to confess I’ve never read.