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Review: Abdulrazak Gurnah’s “Gravel Heart”

This I can tell you: the number of books I receive every week, the number I can actually read, and the number I decide to write about are always in a declining spiral. There are too many good books out there to review all of them. In the eight years I’ve been reviewing a book each week for CounterPunch, I have certainly missed many important ones. My goal instead has been to draw attention to writers who are not always mainstreamed and books—especially when they are novels—that can all too easily be overlooked but should not be. This is certainly true of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s most recent novel, Gravel Heart, a powerful story of family breakdown (especially a painful father/son relationship), exquisitely written and deftly told, a story so believable you turn the last page wondering if the book is memoir and not fiction. Besides some obvious similarities with the writer’s own life, Gravel Heart should more accurately be regarded as a talented novelist’s crowning achievement to an impressive writing career. I say that aware that you may never have heard of Gurnah yet alone read anything he has written.

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born and raised in Zanzibar. The imported educational system was British, though Koranic schools taught the traditional Muslim education, until the revolution of 1964, when the island territory was caught in a Cold War gavotte between the East and the West. Much of the instability of the era is woven into the background of Gravel Heart, especially political violence. People were abducted and subsequently disappeared; in theory, women were liberated but often treated as little more than objects; powerful authorities controlled the government. There was rampant abuse of power and subsequent family breakdown within a quasi-Marxist context. Gurnah lived through all of this, especially the impact on families, and—like his main character in Gravel Heart—left Zanzibar when he was still young for education in Britain.

The confusion for Salim, the novel’s main character, happens abruptly when he is seven, and suddenly his father leaves the family and moves into a rented room, with no explanation that his son can understand. Salim and his mother have been abandoned; the culprit is clearly the father. But the boy’s mother continues to cook her husband’s food and take it to him each day. When Salim is eleven, he begins the daily delivery of food to his silent father, seeking an explanation from the morose man, but nothing is forthcoming. About the same time, Salim’s uncle, Amir—his mother’s brother who lives with them—has a sudden rise in expectations, and quite unexpectedly the boy’s mother is pregnant again, leading to the birth of Salim’s sister at a time when he has already entered secondary school.

After Amir has left for Dublin for diplomatic studies, and later become a diplomat, Salim learns that his mother has had an affair with Amir’s wife’s brother (an important man in the government). Soon, Amir brings Salim to London to live with him and his family, in order to provide a British education for the boy. Before Salim departs, his father says to him, “Keep your ear close to your heart,” a remark that the boy does not understand. But he does realize that his father did not abandon them. He left because of his wife’s unfaithfulness. The secret of his father’s departure has been revealed as the opposite of what he has always believed. The mother was the unfaithful party.

London initially intimidates Salim. He is expected to study business, which he finds uninteresting. In his second year, he fails most of his courses and confesses to his uncle that he is interested in switching majors to literature. That confession leads to his expulsion from Amir’s household. Abruptly, Salim is on his own, after shifting his studies to Brighton. His grades improve and as he becomes more comfortable with life in Britain, he begins to have serious relationships with women. All along, he remains obsessed his father, whom he learns has moved to Kuala Lampur, in order to be with a relative. Salim fears that he will never see his father again. His letters to his mother become less frequent than they were when he first arrived in Britain.

One of Salim’s relationships is particularly unsettling because it recalls his mother’s unfaithfulness to his father. He falls in love with a woman who is partly Indian, and when her parents prohibit the relationship to continue and she follows their orders, his sense that women are unpredictable and unreliable is reinforced. That is also true of at least one other relationship he has with a woman. Soon, he becomes a bit of a hermit, just like his father. Then, quickly, Salim receives word that his mother has died and his father has left Kuala Lampur and returned to Zanzibar.

This is where the story becomes, once again, deeply moving in its final revelations, because Salim decides to make a month’s long trip to Zanzibar to see his sister, who is now an adult, and (more importantly) seek out his father. The nightly conversations with his father restore Salim’s love for the old man, even as he understands that his home is not Zanzibar but Britain. Salim tells his father, “The whole world ends up in London somehow…. The British never left anyone in peace and squeezed everything good out of everybody and took it home, and now a bedraggled lot of niggers and turks have come to share in it.” The statement reiterates several of the most prescient issues of Gurnah’s novels: the empire has struck back; it’s payback time for the once Colonial power; both have lost their cultural identity.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Gravel Heart
Bloomsbury, 261 pp., $28

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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