Friday, October 19, 2018

Tanzania: Gravel Heart, by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Tanzania is a country that was created out of an amalgam of Tanganyika on the mainland and the island of Zanzibar. I knew something of life on the mainland through friends who have worked as volunteers there, but this book is set in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, which is largely Muslim.

Salim grows up there in the 1970s. When his father moves out of the family home, he lives with his mother and her younger brother Amir. Amir becomes a senior diplomat in London and offers Salim a home there and an opportunity to study.

This is not, however, really an emigrant story, even though Salim spends may years in London. It is more about the events that caused his father to move out, and the secrets arising from them. Eventually Salim returns to Zanzibar for his mother's funeral. There he reunites with his younger half-sister, and with his father, who tells him his story.

The narrator of the novel is Salim, but in the last part of the book Salim is relating what his father told him, which to me seemed to add a certain amount of detachment to the story as we are hearing it at two steps removed. Other than that, I found the novel interesting both as a story, and as an insight into the history of Zanzibar, and of the events of the 1970s when the country was in some turmoil through political revolution. I would be happy to read more from this author, though I would also like to find other Tanzanian writers from the mainland, to give some perspective on the rest of the country.

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948. From 1980 to 1982 he was a university lecturer in Nigeria. He then moved to England, to the University of Kent and has been based in the UK ever since.
Gravel Heart was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

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