Abdulrazak Gurnah: Desertion
The story starts in 1899 with Hassanali, who has recently taken over the task of opening up the mosque in the morning in a small town in Zanzibar. However, before he gets to the mosque, he finds a man collapsed in a heap in the square. He takes him home, with some help. The man is Martin Pearce and though bruised and dehydrated, he is not hurt nor ill and soon recovers. Pearce had been on a hunting expedition but got sick of all the killing and left the expedition with three Somali guides given to him by his host who, according to the host, were thoroughly reliable. However, they turned on him and robbed him but did not kill him, rather leaving him to die. He managed to drag himself to safety. He is looked after by the local District Officer, whom he befriends, along with the only other Englishman there, a planter called Burton. Pearce goes to thank Hassanali and his family for looking after him and also explores the town, as he speaks some Arabic. It is at Hassanali’s that he meets Rehana, Hassanali’s sister. Rehana has been married but her husband left her and divorced her. At twenty-two, she is considered rather old to marry. Pearce and Rehana start an affair which, of course, is completely contrary to Islamic law, so they move out to Mombasa, where they live together but when Rehana gets pregnant, Pearce gives her some money and goes back to England. Much of this we only learn later.
The next part of the book jumps to the 1950s. We eventually learn that the narrator is Rashid, younger brother of Amin and presumably based, at least in part, on Gurnah himself. Rashid will eventually get a scholarship and come to England, where he will write the story. In the meantime, Amin, the quiet older brother, starts an affair with Jamila. Jamila is a client of Amin’s sister, Farida, who makes dresses. She is divorced and though she lives with her parents, she has a separate flat and a separate entrance to the flat. Even in that period such an affair is not acceptable. We gradually learn, as we had suspected, that Jamila is Rehana’s grand-daughter and when Amin’s parents learn about the affair, they use this as a criticism of Jamila. Meanwhile Rashid goes off to England (never to return) and he picks up much of the story from letters from Amin. The relationship is broken off and it seems that Jamila has an affair with a minister. After independence, everything goes wrong, with people killed and economic chaos and Jamila disappears. We learn of the death of the mother and other local events. Rashid meanwhile meets Grace and then loses Grace but later meets Barbara when he tells the story of Pearce and Rehana and it seems that Barbara is the grand-daughter of the District Officer who looked after Pearce and who later became friends with Pearce back in England. At this point the story peters out, except that Rashid and Barbara seem to get together and Amin, who has problems with his eyes, may come to England.
It is a fascinating story, though somewhat bitty. Rashid’s own story in London seems limited and almost pointless. It certainly has little relevance to the main story, except for his meeting Barbara, which occurs almost at the end. Similarly, we learn little of the Pearce-Rehana affair, except from afar, and we certainly learn little about their relationship in Mombasa, except for a brief story told second hand by Jamila. Nevertheless, the cultural differences and how the sins of the grandmother are passed down through the generations does make for an interesting story and Gurnah certainly gives us a very vivid picture of the cultural background.
First published by Pantheon Books in 2005