Writing at the peak of his powers, Abdulrazak Gurnah gives us in Desertion a spellbinding novel of forbidden love and cultural upheaval, with consequences powerfully reverberating through three generations and across continents—from the heyday of the British empire to the aftermath of African independence.
Early one morning in 1899, in a small, dilapidated town along the coast of Mombassa, a Muslim man, Hassanali, sets out for a mosque but doesn’t get there. Out of the desert stumbles an Englishman who collapses at Hassanali’s feet: Martin Pearce—writer, traveler, something of an Orientalist. Hassanali cares for Pearce until
the Englishman is taken to the home of colonial officer Frederick Turner to recuperate. When Pearce returns to thank his Good Samaritan, he meets and is enraptured by Rehana, Hassanali’s sister—by her gorgeous eyes and tragic aura. And so begins the passionate, illicit love affair—two lives and cultures colliding—that informs the rich, finely woven tapestry of Desertion.
Gurnah, who has been short-listed for the Booker Prize, deftly and dramatically evokes the personal and political scandals of empire, the weight of tradition—of religion and culture—in everyday lives, the role of women in Muslim society, the vicissitudes of love, the complexities of filial relationships, the inexorability of miscegenation, and the power of fiction to charm and to harm. Desertion is a highly achieved, riveting work of imagination, brimming with controlled figural inventiveness, psychological acuity, and moral complexity.
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Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948 and teaches at the University of Kent. He is the author of six novels, including Paradise, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award, and By the Sea, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THERE WAS A STORY of his first sighting. In fact, there was more than one, but elements of the stories merged into one with time and telling. In all of them he appeared at dawn, like a figure out of myth. In one story, he was an upright shadow moving so slowly that in that peculiar underwater light his approach was almost imperceptible, inching forward like destiny. In another, he was not moving at all, not a tremor or a quiver, just looming there on the edge of the town, grey eyes glittering, waiting for someone to appear, for someone whose unavoidable luck it was to find him. Then, when someone did, he slid forward towards him, to fulfil outcomes no one had predicted. Someone else claimed to have heard him before he was seen, to have heard his beseeching, longing howl in the darkest hour of the night, like that of an animal out of legend. What was undisputed–although there was no real dispute between these stories as they all added to the strangeness of his appearance–was that it was Hassanali the shopseller who found him, or was found by him.
There is luck in all things, as there was in this first arrival, but luck is not the same as chance, and even the most unexpected events fulfil a design. That is, there were consequences in the future that made it seem less than accidental that it was Hassanali who found the man. At that time, Hassanali was always the first person about in the morning in this locality. He was up before dawn to open the doors and the windows of the mosque. Then he stood on the steps to call the people to prayer, pitching his voice to all corners of the clearing in front of him. Salla, salla. Sometimes the breeze carried similar calls from nearby mosques, other cryers chiding the people to wake. As-salatu khayra minannawm. Prayer is better than sleep. Hassanali probably imagined the sinners turning over irritably at being disturbed, and probably felt indignant and self-righteous satisfaction. When he finished calling, he swept the dust and the grit from the mosque steps with a feathery casuarina broom whose silent efficiency gave him deep pleasure.
This task of opening the mosque, cleaning the steps, making the call to prayer, was one he had appointed himself to for his own reasons. Someone had to do it, someone had to get up first, open the mosque and make the adhan for the dawn prayers, and someone always did, for his own reasons. When that person was ill or grew tired of the charge, there was always another person to take over. The man who preceded him was called Sharif Mdogo, and had come down with fever so badly in the kaskazi two years ago that he was still bedridden. It was a little surprising that Hassanali had volunteered himself to take over as the dawn cryer, though, not least to Hassanali himself. He was not zealous about the mosque, and it required zeal to rise at every dawn and bully people out of sleep. Sharif Mdogo was like that, the kind of man who liked to barge into complacency and give it a good shake. In addition, Hassanali was a worrying man by nature, or perhaps experience had made him that way, had made him anxious and cautious. These semi-nocturnal chores tortured his nerves and disturbed his nights, and he feared the darkness and the shadows and the scuttlings of the deserted lanes. But then these were also the reasons he offered himself for the task, as a submission and a penance. He started doing the duty two years before the dawn of this sighting, when his wife Malika first arrived. It was a plea that his marriage should prosper, and a prayer for his sister's grief to end.
The mosque was only a short stroll across the clearing from his shop, but when he started making the dawn call to prayer, he felt obliged to do as his predecessor Sharif Mdogo had done. He entered nearby lanes, more or less shouting into bedroom windows as he walked past, bellowing at the sleepers. He worked out a route which avoided the chasms and caves where the worst of the shadowy mischief lurked, but he was still prone to seeing spectral visions hurrying away into the darkest parts of the streets as he approached, fleeing the prayers and holy words he uttered as he exhorted the slumbering faithful. These visions were so real–a monster claw glimpsed at the turning of a lane, discontented spirits softly panting somewhere behind him, images of gross underground creatures which glowed and faded before he caught proper sight of them–that often he performed his tasks in a sweat despite the dawn chill. One morning, during another anxious, sweat-drenched round, when the dark lanes pressed in on him like the walls of a narrowing tunnel, he felt a rush of air on his arm as the shadow of a dark wing caught the corner of his eye. He ran, and after that decided to end the torment. He retreated to the mosque steps to make his call, a short walk across the clearing. He added the chore of sweeping the steps to make amends, even though the imam told him that calling from the steps was all that was required, and that Sharif Mdogo had been zealous in his duties.
Hassanali was crossing the clearing on this dawn when he saw a shadow across the open ground begin to move towards him. He blinked and swallowed in terror, nothing unpredictable. The world was teeming with the dead, and this grey time was their lair. His voice croaked, his holy words dried up, his body left him. The shadow approached him slowly, and in the fast-approaching dawn, Hassanali thought he could see its eyes glittering with a hard, stony light. This was a moment he had already lived in his imagination, and he knew that as soon as he turned his back, the ghoul would devour him. If he had been in the mosque he would have felt safe, because that is a sanctuary which no evil can enter, but he was still a long way from there and he had not yet opened the doors. In the end, overcome with panic, he shut his eyes, babbled repeated pleas for God's forgiveness, and allowed his knees to give way under him. He submitted himself to what was to come.
When he opened his eyes again, slowly, peering out as if he was lifting a sheet under which he had been hiding from a nightmare, it was to see the shadow slumped on the ground a few feet from him, half on its side and with one knee bent. Now in the brightening light he could see that it was not a spectre or a shadow or a ghoul, but an ashen-complexioned man whose grey eyes were open in exhaustion only feet away from his. 'Subhanallah, who are you? Are you human or spirit?' Hassanali asked, to be on the safe side. The man sighed and groaned all at once, and so announced himself as human without a doubt.
That was how he was when he arrived, exhausted, lost, his body worn out and his face and arms covered with cuts and bites. Hassanali, on his knees in the dust, felt for the man's breath, and when he felt it warm and strong on his palm, he smiled to himself as if he had managed something clever. The man's eyes were open, but when Hassanali waved his hand in front of them, they did not blink. Hassanali would have preferred that they did. He rose carefully, incredulous about the drama he was now part of, then stood for a moment above the bundle groaning at his feet before hurrying to call for help. By this time it was dawn. The exact moment of greatest felicity for the dawn prayer was swiftly passing–it was only very brief–and Hassanali had not performed the duties expected of him. He feared that the regular early morning worshippers would be annoyed with him when they woke up later and discovered that they had drowsed through the morning's blessing. Most of these worshippers were elderly men who needed to keep their accounts healthy and up-to-date in case of a sudden summons. But he should have remembered that they also no longer slept that well, fretted the whole night long and could not wait for the dawn and the call to prayer to release them. So even as Hassanali set off to seek help, worrying about having failed in his duty as the muadhin, some were stepping out of their houses to find out why there had not been a call that morning. Perhaps some even worried if Hassanali was well, or if something had passed him by in the night. There were witnesses, then, to the man's first appearance, people who gathered round his wide-eyed body and saw it slumped like a shadow in the open ground in front of the mosque.
Hassanali returned with two young men he had found huddled half-asleep against the café doors. They worked there and were waiting for it to open, clinging to the last moments of rest before the day's antics began, but they rushed to help when Hassanali shook them awake. Everyone liked to help in the old days. When they arrived at the scene, urgent behind Hassanali's increasingly self-important strides, it was to find three elderly men standing a few paces from the body, watching it with fastidious interest: Hamza, Ali Kipara and Jumaane. These were the stalwarts of the dawn prayers, who stood directly behind the imam in the congregation, and who were the coffee-seller's first customers every morning. They were men well past their best years, wise men who expected their lives' endeavours to be considered unblemished, and who kept their eyes open and on the world that passed them by. They did not usually stir for anybody but themselves, and thought their age allowed them to act in this way. So they were not really three elderly men because everyone knew who they were, but by the measure of their time and place they were old, and their infirmities were part of their dignity, and their unbending display was perhaps an attempt at fulfilling what was required of them. For whatever reason, they now stood there, feigning indifference and making casual remarks while the young men and Hassanali rushed about. Hassanali opened the mosque and the young men fetched the rope bed, the one used for washing the dead. Hassanali winced but did not say anything. The young men lifted the moan...
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