Jan/Feb 2002 Book Reviews

By the Sea

Abdulrazak Gurnah
Bloomsbury, Allen & Unwin (August 2001) 245 pages
ISBN: 0 7475 5280 0

reviewed by Ann Skea

Some years ago I read an article outlining different cultural approaches to essay writing. The Western approach, it suggested, was linear, step-by-step, based on mathematical logic (obviously the essayist had not been exposed to post-modern literature); the Middle Eastern approach was described as favouring parallel arguments; the Far Eastern approach was to circle around the central issue, making oblique references to it but never approaching it directly. By the Sea, by Abdulrazak Gurnah, who is from Zanzibar, fits none of these paradigms, but I was reminded of them because I found a certain strangeness in its style and wondered if it was because I had brought my own cultural expectations to my reading it.

If I were to attempt to describe the pattern of Gurnah's approach, I would say it was rather like a cauliflower: a stem of story beneath an abundance of blossoming branches and with a blind end. This is not meant to be a criticism, just an observation, and I note that the cover blurb calls the style "lyrical." Gurnah's narrators are both from Zanzibar and they both tell their stories, but they both seem unprepared to commit themselves and constantly hedge direct statement around with qualifications and even denials. Their stories, too, are interconnected and hinge on family relationships, business and local custom. Perhaps the gradual, sensitive revelation of the interconnections is the way the narrators would tell their stories in their own country, I don't know. But I found it slow and the mannerism of the narrators made them seem uncertain and forgetful. I did not warm to them. Nor could I really get involved in their complex family interconnections and intrigues, although these are the major part of the story.

Rajab Shaaban is sixty-five years old when he flies into England on a fake passport. His real name is Saleh Omar but he has borrowed the name of the father of another man, Latif Mahmud, who turns out to be the translator called on by the Refugee Committee to help him. Saleh, in fact, does speak English, so the first meeting with Latif is cancelled. Eventually, however, they meet at Latif's request. Each man tells his own story in his own way and their meeting begins the unravelling of the links between them. Through their stories, too, the recent history of Zanzibar is told.

What did interest me, in passing, was the account Saleh Omar gives of his arrival in England as an illegal immigrant claiming refugee status. It was interesting to compare the procedure he describes with those currently employed here in Australia. It was also interesting to hear comments about British Colonialism from the perspective of one from a colonized country which had lately gained independence, and to see how the turmoil of that change affected ordinary people.

Abdulrazak Gurnah is a good writer. His book, Paradise, was short-listed for both the Booker and the Whitbread Prizes in 1994 and others (those who enjoy a lyrical style, perhaps) will enjoy this book. It just did not absorb me.


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