Paradise | Abdulrazak Gurnah

Books | Review

historical fiction | africa | novel | nobel prize

First published 1994

Set in pre-colonial Tanzania, this is the story of Yusuf. Yusuf's father sells him to the rich merchant known as Uncle Aziz, in order to pay off the debts he has accumulated. Yusuf goes to work in the merchant's store in a small town near the coast. It is in the store that Yusuf meets Khalil, another boy who is also working in the store to pay off his own father's debts. Khalil's sister, Amina, lives in Uncle Aziz's house with his wife, who is referred to throughout the novel as The Mistress.

As the years pass, Yusuf comes to realise that he, Khalil, Amina and Mzee Hamdani (the gardener) are all Uncle Aziz's slaves. Long before the Europeans arrived on African soil, the slave trade flourished in East Africa, with the Arabs mostly engaged in this trade. It was very common for children to be taken away from their parents to pay off their debts, even though the practice had been officially forbidden for many years.

After seeing Yusuf helping Mzee Hamdani in the garden, the Mistress is captivated by his beauty and becomes increasingly obsessed with him. Uncle Aziz takes Yusuf away on one of his trading trips in order to keep him away from his wife, but when they return, the Mistress tries to seduce Yusuf. He rejects her advances and she accuses him of trying to assault her.

The German colonisers are always in the background of the book, with stories of their brutality and rumours of their superhuman powers spreading throughout the country. In the last act of the book, the Germans finally arrive at Yusuf and Khalil's store. Yusuf seizes the opportunity to escape and win his "freedom". The irony being that the arrival of the Europeans marks the start of a new form of slavery.

My Verdict: I struggled a little with this book, as I felt that the story didn't go anywhere and the characters didn't develop as fully as I would have liked. Gurnah's prose style is beautiful and poetic, and the way he has interwoven Koranic stories into this novel is extremely intelligent. I really like the way he deals with the pre- and post- colonial history of East Africa, especially Tanzania, raising questions and pointing out nuances that are never usually mentioned when stories are written from a Eurocentric point of view. Although I wasn't a huge fan of his particular novel, I would still recommend it and am eager to read more by this Nobel Prize winner.

Review Award | 4/5

Posted 14.06.2022

blog and books logo grey background with white spiral
black outline instagram logo