Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Professor Gurnah, born in Tanzania, won the Nobel Prize in 2021. He teaches postcolonial literature at the University of Kent in the UK.

This is a very unusual coming-of-age story. It begins when Yusuf, the main character, is about 11 years old. He is the younger child in a poor family living in a village in Tanzania in the early 1900s, during the colonial period in Africa. The Germans control almost everything, and the people both fear and despise them.

The family often receives visits from “Uncle” Aziz, a wealthy Arab trader. Although he is not actually related to Yusuf’s family, they still call him ‘uncle’. Uncle Aziz comes for trade, but at Yusuf’s young age, he doesn’t fully understand Aziz’s true role during these visits. Despite this, Yusuf admires Uncle Aziz because he is wealthy, well-dressed, and smells good.

One day, during one of Uncle Aziz’s visits, Yusuf’s father tells him that he will go with his uncle. When they arrive at Uncle Aziz’s house, it is revealed that Yusuf’s father, unable to pay his debt, has pawned Yusuf to work as a servant. This is essentially a form of slavery.

Yusuf makes friends with the other servants and the family, but after some time, Uncle Aziz takes him to work for another merchant family. This new master is less wealthy and treats Yusuf poorly. However, because of Yusuf’s personality and good looks, the family begins to appreciate him. Yusuf, who knows how to keep records and accounts of the shop, is basically illiterate.

The family allows him to go to the temple with their children to learn the Koran. Yusuf learns quickly and enjoys it, helping the children with their reading. Although the family is happy with his progress, they constantly remind him that he is a servant.

After a year, Uncle Aziz returns and takes 17-year-old Yusuf on a caravan trip to do business with the locals. This trip is an extraordinarily shocking learning experience for Yusuf. Uncle Aziz hires a large number of porters and guards, and the entire caravan consists of about 50 people who travel on foot through various hostile environments.

In the 1900s, Arab trading was very difficult. There was a constant risk of attacks from tribes and wild animals, such as snakes and leopards. Uncle Aziz frequently had to bribe local chiefs and pay large amounts of goods for support, lodging, and protection.

Often, nearby towns were hostile to the caravan. Sometimes, they would arrive at a town recently raided by enemies, finding it completely destroyed and filled with wounded men. On one occasion, Uncle Aziz instructed his men to help bury the dead from a village conflict, but the town did not appreciate their help.

Another time, while the porters were sleeping, a hyena attacked a man, leaving him badly wounded. Meanwhile, a crocodile killed a woman who went to the river to gather water. The villagers blamed Uncle Aziz’s caravan, believing they brought evil spirits. This incident highlighted the cultural clash between the Arabs, who believed in a single superior God, and the locals, who believed in a multitude of  spirits.

Aziz asks permission to enter a nearby town, but the chief initially denies his request. After the trader insists and offers gifts, the chief apparently grants permission for them to enter the town the next day. However, that night, the town’s chief sends his men to attack the caravan. Aziz, his foreman, and several guards are badly beaten. The chief threatens to seize all their goods, and Aziz’s attempts to negotiate fail.

Uncle Aziz discusses the situation with his men and decides that they will try to take their goods and flee the town, prepared to fight if necessary. This seems a better option than leaving empty-handed and starving.

Unexpectedly, a column of European men enters the town and demands to speak with the chief. These are German soldiers, as the novel is set at the onset of WWI, and they have come to take control of the town. Aziz, being a trader with more outside contacts, approaches the German captain for help. The captain scolds the chief, disregarding his authority, and instructs him to return everything he has stolen from Aziz.

The caravan leaves the town and takes shelter in a nearby village to recover after many of the men, including Aziz and his foreman, were badly beaten. The foreman feels humiliated after being beaten in front of his men.

Aziz and Yusuf reflect on what happened in the town. Uncle Aziz recognizes their good fortune, attributing much of it to Yusuf. Yusuf’s pleasant and calm nature makes him well-liked by everyone he meets.

This is one of the best books I have read this year. I love it. However, the title, “Paradise,” keeps me thinking. The relentless hostility, inhospitable conditions, and constant violence throughout their journey seem to contrast sharply with the meaning of “Paradise.” The author must have a compelling reason for choosing such a title for this excellent novel.

To be continued.

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