Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book 73, Tanzania: “Paradise” by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Y’know, I know this is a Booker Prize shortlistee and all, and Gurnah’s imagination and prose skills are pretty powerful. But I’m not really into this book – it’s all setting, all premise, all exposition, with barely any agency on the part of our handsome young hero Yusuf.

The back cover says it’s set in East Africa at the time of colonization – folks refer to Zanzibar and Kawa and Mombasa, but it’s not clear to my unschooled brain if the site of the main action’s in Tanzania or Kenya, or if the main characters are black or Arab (it’s mentioned that Yusuf is Mswahili, while the others speak Arabic – does that help?).

Historical markers oughta narrow it down: the Arabs are still trading amongst the local Sultans of the interior and taking on the kids of their indebted as rehanis; the Germans and English are invading with their askari armies and have ended the slave trade and are forcing the Sultans to cut back on their tribute; somehow there’s a train and an Indian mechanic who knows how to fix cars. Early 20th, very late 19th centuries? Beats me.

There’s also a plot at the end that makes it clear that the whole is an analogy for the tale of Joseph in Genesis, he of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat fame. Yusuf=Joseph (he doesn’t have a coat but he does have a whole lot of disturbing dreams and is very handsome), Uncle Aziz=Potiphar, Zuleikha=well, Zuleika, the Islamic name for Potiphar’s wife who falls for Joseph and tears his shirt as he flees. A lot of Islamic imagery throughout, in fact – blazing gates and hells and gardens: paradise itself.

But really, even though Yusuf’s a gorgeous innocent teenager who’s been torn from his family as a child, how can we have sympathy for him when he has no bloody volition? It’s like trying to get emotionally attached to a pet stone. (Possible, but still a stretch.)

Ahhh, maybe I’ve learned something about lush, descriptive, dreamlike writing. Maybe I’ve learned that you can get away without having a real ending, or much of a plot, and still get wild praise from the criterati.

But y’know, I could’ve read Shaaban Robert, father of Swahili poetry instead. I could’ve CS Forester’s The African Queen, y’know? Grump grump grump.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:
The air was sharp under the mountain, and the light has a purple tint which Yusuf had never seen before. In the early morning the top of the mountain was hidden by clouds, but as the sun strengthened the clouds disappeared and the peak congealed into ice. On one side, the level plain stretched away. Behind the mountain, he was told by the others who had been here before, lived the dusty warrior people who herded cattle and drank the blood of their animals. They thought war was honourable and were proud of their history of violence. The greatness of their leaders was measured by the animals they had acquired from raiding their neighbours, and by the number of women they had abducted from their homes. When they were not fighting, they adorned their bodies and hair with the dedication of brothel queens.

Next book: Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, from Burundi.

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