Afterlives | Abdulrazak Gurnah

Books | Review

historical fiction | africa | nobel prize

First published 2020

In the late 19th Century, the German Empire established colonies in Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya. Known as Deutsch-Ostafrika, the German rule was brutal and violent, using deadly military tactics to defeat their enemies. This historical fiction novel is set against the backdrop of the atrocities committed out by the Germans, with most of the novel taking place in what is now Tanzania.

Khalifa marries Asha in 1907, just as the Maji Maji uprising is coming to an end. The young couple carve out a relatively quiet life after the recent fighting, until Ilyas arrives in the town. Ilyas can speak German, having been sent to a missionary school by his master on the coffee farm where he has lived and worked since childhood. He speaks up in defence of the colonists and eventually joins the Schutztruppe Askaris as the Germans prepare for the First World War.

The Askaris are a feared army of native soldiers who carry out brutal atrocities in the name of defending the German Empire. As Ilyas goes off to war, the story of his younger sister, Afiya, begins. Placed into the care of a very strict family from a very young age, Afiya is beaten so badly for being able to read and write, that she writes to Ilyas's friend Khalifa to ask for help. Khalifa rescues her and Afiya grows up with Khalifa and his wife, Asha. 

At the same time, we are introduced to Hamza. He has also joined the Askari Schutztruppe, but soon realises that he has made a grave mistake. He becomes the Oberleutnant's personal servant, and their claustrophobic relationship unfolds, revealing the complicated relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor. Hamza is badly injured after being attacked by another German who is jealous of his relationship with the Oberleutnant, and Hamza spends months recovering and convalescing at a German-run mission. He eventually returns to the town where he grew up, and starts working for Biashara in the warehouse he runs. There that he meets and befriends Khalifa, who offers him a place to stay and introduces him to Afiya. The couple fall in love, get married and have a son, whom they name Ilyas, after Afiya's long lost brother. As the young Ilyas grows up, he visits Germany, piecing together the life of the older Ilyas after he leaves the Schutztruppe. 

My Verdict: At first I found the novel slow going, but as soon as Afiya's story began I was hooked; waiting to see if her brother would return; if she and Hamza would be allowed to be together; if young Ilyas would find out his uncle's fate. The ending was sudden, but it tied up the story quite well. I really learned a lot from this book. I'm fascinated by the history of European colonisation and hearing the other side of the story, because it's never heard enough. A beautiful book, and a well-deserved Nobel Prize winner.

Review Award | 4.5/5

Posted 15.02.2022

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