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Never read Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah? Start with ‘Afterlives.’

(Washington Post illustration/Midjourney)

When Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in literature last year, not nearly enough people had read anything by the Tanzanian-born writer. The author of 10 English-language novels, Gurnah had attracted critical praise, but fans knew his stories of East Africa and exile should be reaching a wider audience. In response to the Nobel Prize news, Gurnah’s British editor confessed, “It has been one of the great sadnesses and frustrations of my career that his work has not received the recognition it deserves. . . . I had almost given up hope.”

That hope was well placed. Propelled by the worldwide recognition that the Swedish Academy conferred, Gurnah’s books are finally being reprinted in America, and his latest, “Afterlives,” is being released by Riverhead, the savviest U.S. publisher of literary fiction. Consider this a late invitation you should not ignore.

Now 73, Gurnah fled to England as a teenage refugee after the 1964 uprising in Zanzibar. He began writing fiction in English — his first language was Swahili — and eventually became an English professor at the University of Kent, where he taught for several decades. Throughout his career, he has worked to impress upon a forgetful world the experiences of people displaced and rendered invisible.

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“Afterlives” demonstrates how gracefully Gurnah works in two registers simultaneously. The story is at once a globe-spanning epic of European colonialism and an intimate look at village life in one of the many overlooked corners of the Earth. Both parts — reclamations of history and heart — are equally revelatory.

Atrocities committed by Germany in the mid-20th century have tended to obscure the horror of its earlier colonial ambitions, but starting in the 1880s, the Deutsch-Ostafrika was a massive colony that disrupted the lives of millions of Africans. Acknowledging the cultural amnesia he’s working against, Gurnah writes, “Later these events would be turned into stories of absurd and nonchalant heroics, a sideshow to the great tragedies in Europe, but for those who lived through it, this was a time when their land was soaked in blood and littered with corpses.”

Indeed, just detailing such crimes would risk dissolving the victims in slush pools of suffering. But Gurnah avoids that misstep by gently vivifying the lives of a few African characters in all their rich humanity and even their comedy, without sentimentality or condescension. This is storytelling as an act of resistance against colonialism’s effort to homogenize and erase.

Gurnah sets “Afterlives” in East Africa in the early 20th century after “the Germans and the British and the French and the Belgians and the Portuguese and the Italians and whoever else had already had their congress and drawn their maps and signed their treaties.” But since those cruelly oblivious documents took no cognizance of the African people living here, the region remains in a constant cycle of suffering, rebellion and suppression. And so “Afterlives” deftly inverts the old Western narrative, rendering the Europeans as background characters, while placing East Africans in the forefront.

At the center of the story is an Indian African man named Khalifa who lives in an unnamed town. Like almost everyone he knows, he has grown up under the shadow of colonialism. Equipped with some bookkeeping skills, a little English and an enthusiasm for gossip, Khalifa gets a job as a clerk for a local merchant, a kind of landlubber pirate who plays both sides of German rule. By every outward appearance Khalifa’s boss is a “saintly member of the community,” but those who know this Dickensian character better regard him as secretive and ruthless, willing to do whatever pays, including bribing, smuggling, moneylending and hoarding.

Early in the novel, Khalifa’s boss sets him up to marry a young relative. “Khalifa knew that the merchant was making him a gift of her, and that the young woman was not going to have much say in the matter,” Gurnah writes with his usual plaintive wit. “Khalifa agreed to the arrangement because he did not think he could refuse and because he desired it.” But soon enough, Khalifa realizes that his marriage has been arranged not out of generosity to him but in hopes of resolving one of the merchant’s real estate schemes. So lives are redirected along new trajectories for reasons entirely out of the participants’ control.

That erratic pattern remains the rule for Gurnah’s characters, especially a young man named Ilyas, who becomes Khalifa’s best friend. Ilyas was kidnapped as a child by an African mercenary and eventually sent to a German mission school. When he finally returns home, he reunites with his orphaned sister, but soon he feels inspired to enlist with the Germans and help them in the approaching Great War.

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In one of the novel’s many clever maneuvers, most of the story takes place in Ilyas’s absence. This sweet, earnest man remains a persistent negative space, a mystery that torments his sister and Khalifa for years. What did he do with the Germans? Did he survive the war? These questions hover on the surface of the plot like a watermark.

But a parallel incident about another young man named Hamza provides a fascinating look at what it was like for East Africans serving their European occupiers. Long before Hamza’s life is woven into the main storyline, we see him struggling to navigate the impossible currents of German desire and disgust. His precarious and humiliating experience as the cherished companion of a powerful officer becomes a haunting metaphor for Africa’s plight in Germany’s geopolitics.

“Afterlives” makes strong demands on readers. Gurnah moves fluidly between the complicated lives of his characters and the reckless actions of old empires. Unless you know early 20th-century African history well, you’ll be googling as you go. But the investment of attention will be fully rewarded. And you’ll fall further under the spell of this novel as its focus gradually narrows to concentrate on the hopes and dreams of Hamza and his wife, who manage to carve out a little oasis using only the purity of their affection.

At one point, pressed to provide details of his past, Hamza says, “You want me to tell you about myself as if I have a complete story but all I have are fragments which are snagged by troubling gaps.” That may be Gurnah’s greatest act of love and artistry: his ability to gather the fragments of broken lives and create a breathtaking mosaic in print.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

On Sept. 13 at 7 p.m., Abdulrazak Gurnah will discuss “Afterlives” with Tope Folarin at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington. Tickets are available to watch in person or online.


By Abdulrazak Gurnah

Riverhead. 309 pp. $28

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