Gurnah was ahead of the curve

In Text Messages this week, literature Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah is a superb writer who was telling stories of migrants long before it became fashionable in literary circles.

It is the stuff of award cliché. A caller from the ennobling institution phones the recipient to relay the news. Caught cold and in the kitchen, there is only one response to the question “Who is speaking?”

“Come on, get out of here! Leave me alone.” Later, the startled winner reveals, “I thought it was a prank.” So goes the story of how Abdulrazak Gurnah learnt he was the Nobel Prize in Literature laureate for 2021.

The 73-year-old Zanzibar-born novelist and retired literary scholar becomes the sixth African to win a literature Nobel, following Nigerian playwright, poet and novelist Wole Soyinka (1986), Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1988), South African novelists Nadine Gordimer (1991) and JM Coetzee (2003), and Zimbabwean novelist, memoirist, and trailblazing science fiction and female rights writer Doris Lessing (2007).

One can quibble about whether there are six or four Africans. Coetzee has lived in Adelaide, Australia, for most of this millennium and the late Gordimer delighted in writing and pointing out in public that he was no longer South African. Mahfouz was widely celebrated as the first Arab writer to win the Nobel, although geography surely trumps: Egypt is in Africa, after all.

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It is fascinating to range across their five Nobel acceptance speeches and to wonder what Gurnah will focus on in his. Soyinka and Gordimer spoke about politics and the writer, Soyinka sounding a global rallying cry against apartheid and Gordimer, in a lower register, doing the same. Mahfouz paid respects to the civilisations, Pharaonic and Islamic, that made him. Coetzee read a short story, a philosophical contemplation and narrative imagining of the relationship between Robinson Crusoe’s creator Daniel Defoe and his character Man Friday. Lessing evoked rural Zimbabwe and the irrepressible desire to read.

Decades before it became global reality and literary fashion, Gurnah wrote about the migrant, the displaced and the dispossessed. That came in large part from the extreme disruption of his own life, forced to flee Zanzibar as an 18-year-old, two years after the 1964 revolution that saw Arab citizens hunted, beaten, jailed, tortured and killed. Swahili was Gurnah’s first language but that did not matter: language was not the test of belonging in that turbulent time. 

A teenage refugee, Gurnah arrived in England. More than half a century later he retired as professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent, an astonishing life’s journey and work all the more remarkable for the quiet and powerful sideline of his novelist’s career. Ten novels were what the Nobel Committee for Literature had to assess his suitability; in its citation for the award it noted Gurnah’s “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism, and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.

Diminished stature

The literary Nobel is not without its problems, as with the endeavour as a whole, with the preponderance of white male winners from the northern hemisphere particularly glaring. Worse is that in its 121 years, Nobel prizes have gone to only 59 women, not even 7% of all the Nobels awarded. Recent laureates have both diminished the prize’s literary stature – Bob Dylan – and its own claim that it goes to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” – Peter Handke. The latter is a defiant and unrepentant denialist of the Srebrenica genocide, when Serbs murdered thousands of Muslim boys and men. 

Gurnah’s award would seem to address origins and race, literary quality and ethical rectitude. More than any of those tick-the-boxes hypotheticals, however, he is simply a superb writer, sometimes compared to Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist often automatically described as “the father of the African novel”. (An honour South Africans could claim for Sol Plaatjie and his novel Mhudi, but let us set parochialism aside.)

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The comparison with Achebe highlights that he was ignored by the Nobel committee, another terrible Nobel omission. That anti-Achebe stance is ascribed, very plausibly, to western European reaction to Achebe’s withering view of Joseph Conrad and in particular of Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, a portrait of a part of Africa apparently irredeemable because of what Conrad’s narrator believes are its savagery and barbarism and benightedness.

It is fanciful to suggest that Gurnah is a laureate partly to compensate for Achebe being overlooked, as well as being insulting to two great writers. But it is a huge triumph for a writer who has never been pushy about his work, never demanding the foreground and never pontificating about issues of the day. 

Instead, his novels have spoken for him, about the terror and horror of uprooting, flight into the foreign, fear of the new and threatening, delicate tendrils of hope sprouting in the unfamiliar and strange, and what home means and where it lies. In those are all our stories inscribed. And so an artist of the particular shows again, to all who have forgotten, that in the carefully considered and captured detail of the small and singular life are to be found the vast universals of human life.

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