Immigrants Hiding Their Pasts
In a volatile scene in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s perceptive novel, The Last Gift, the adult daughter of two immigrant parents (whom she loves) erupts into vitriol when she learns—for the first time—the details of their earlier lives, years ago, before they migrated to England. This is what she shouts at her mother: “‘I can’t bear this,’ she said angrily. ‘I can’t bear these shitty, vile immigrant tragedies of yours. I can’t bear the tyranny of your ugly lives. I’ve had enough, I’m leaving.’” Then, when her brother, Jamal, says to her, “‘Shut up, Hanna…. Let Ma speak,’” Hanna snaps at him, “‘My name is Anna, your moron….’” The scene, fairly late in the novel, speaks volumes. Hanna no longer calls herself by her given name, because it reveals her foreign origins. Anna, who is much more Western, believes that she is assimilated, and she wants to depart, leave the scene, in order that no further confrontation with her family is possible.
Hanna’s eruption comes after several others have broken down and a much more placid opening: “One day, long before the troubles, he slipped away without saying a word to anyone and never went back. And then another day, forty-three years later, he collapsed just outside the front door of his house in a small English town. It was late in the day when it happened, returning home after work, but it was also late in the day altogether. He had left things for too long and there was no one to blame but himself.”
That paragraph refers to Hanna’s father, Abbas, who also fled conflict, never going back to Zanzibar, the place of his origins. Nor, it turns out, did he ever tell his wife, Maryam, or his children. Instead, he chose to hide his background, but—as we subsequently learn—this is true of Maryam also, who believes that her parents are from the Middle East, though she is, in fact, a foundling, raised by foster parents. She will flee from them, just as Abbas fled from an ugly incident in his own youth. Both were barely out of their teens, and Abbas—after years of being a sailor—settled in England and became fairly prosperous. Again, there are numerous elements here of immigrant adjustment and success in the adoptive country. But Gurnah, who has written of such matters in earlier books and has been justifiably praised as a novelist (including short-listed for the Man Booker Award twice), tells a different story here: old wounds, from the past, never healing because they have been repressed.
After Abbas collapses (from late-setting diabetes and a stroke) and finds himself confined to a bed, rest, and a slow recovery, he has the necessary time to mull over his origins and then to reveal them to Maryam, his wife of thirty years. Abbas’ father was a tyrant, who didn’t want his son to waste himself on education, even though the teenager managed to acquire the training to become a teacher. Then, because he dared to peep at a girl in the courtyard of the place where he lived, he was forced into a quick marriage, only to discover that his wife was pregnant, pregnant by some other man. That resulted in his flight from Zanzibar, before the child was born, and resulted in thirteen years of wandering (Biblical overtones here, of course).
In all the years of marriage, he never told Maryam about his first wife—not until the stroke that incapacities him and gives him the leisure to reflect on his past. And Maryam’s response? It’s pretty ugly. She calls him a bigamist. How could he have done this to her? You would think that the three decades of their marriage would have counted for something, but Maryam is unable to see it that way.
Gurnah wants us to understand that immigrants often bring emotional baggage with them, and even though many of them are hugely successful in their adoptive countries, the price of the past—repression—is its own hidden burden, likely to break apart the most loving relationships many years afterwards. Maryam is not so clean herself (and that past will be revealed much later in the novel). Both Jamal and Hanna experience numerous ugly incidents, growing out of their ethnicity, pointing out the difficulties of the second generation of immigrants—even with their potential mates, whom one would assume would be understanding.
The Last Gift is strong on character and culture but slow and muted in its plotting. Nuance has always been Gurnah’s strength, as well as characterization, but in his most recent novel (his ninth) the pacing could have been faster and more engaging.
Abdulrazak Gurnah: The Last Gift
Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $26.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.