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Abdulrazak Gurnah: Gravel Heart

Our hero/narrator is Salim. His initial concern is that his father, Masud, did not seem to want him. Fathers are not always easy, especially if they too grew up without their father’s love, for then everything they know would make them understand that fathers had to have things their own way, one way or another.

Salim lives with his mother, Saida, and younger sister, Munira. The father does not live with them. He had worked as a clerk for the water authority but now seems to have a market stall, not selling much. Salim has to take his lunch to him every day and Masud seems to be very much a lost soul when Salim visits. Part of the book is taken up with explaining how Masud came to be like this.

We learn something of the background of the two parents. Masud’s father was a teacher, Maalim Yahya, who left to work in the Gulf before Salim knew him. He had apparently lost his job though Salim does not know why. Saida’s father had worked for a political party which opposed colonialism, so he lost his job. He continued working for the same party but it turned out to be the wrong party so he disappeared and was never heard of again. The family land and the house were confiscated and became state property.

Saida’s brother, Amir, had had his own troubles and he came to stay for a while, Masud having left when Salim was seven. His father is now living in a small rented room, working in the market, and Salim does not know why but puts it down to the strange workings of adults. Saida takes food to Masud every day at lunch and, later, when he is a teenager, Salim takes over the task, though he finds his father very uncommunicative. Initially he was afraid of him but, later, he saw only detachment and defeat.

Meanwhile, Amir is doing well. He has got a job in the diplomatic service and been sent to study in Dublin. He is also engaged to Asha and will marry her. However, he also finds out that his mother is seeing someone, who is in fact the brother of Asha, and is called Hakim. Hakim is successful and even appears on TV. Salim has also noticed that his mother is pregnant and learns that Hakim is the father. A daughter, Munira, is born. Salim tries to take his revenge by sabotaging the house and his mother but, eventually, acquiesces.

Amir has offered to helped Salim and bring him over to London where Amir is now a diplomat. He goes to London to stay with Amir and Asha and, at his uncle’s suggestion, studies business. We now follow Salim in his studies, which do not go well. Unknown to Amir, who is financing him, he is not studying and when he finally confesses to Amir, Amir is not surprisingly furious. Amir is thrown out of the house and has to work for a living, though he now studies literature. We follow his time in London, his studies, his love life, the residence permit he manages to obtain by dubious means and his job. He also learns a bit more about Hakim, who apparently saved Amir from jail. Finally, after a considerable time, he decides to return to Tanzania but only after he hears of his mother’s death and his father’s return.

Much of the rest of the book involves his return to Zanzibar where he gets to know his half-sister but, more particularly, has two long discussions with his father about what happened that caused him to leave. The problem with this revelation is that we already have a good idea about what happened, both because of what his mother had told him and what Asha told him. The discussion with his father only fills in the details.

This is not a bad book. It has a few morals. You can’t live alone, Masud tells his son and when his son retorts that he did, Masud replies I lived with the misery of love gone wrong, and I almost lost my life. The rather gloomy last sentence is Some people have a use in the world, even if it is only to swell a crowd and say yeah, and some people don’t.

However, in between, much of the book is simply following Salim’s rather mundane life. Yes, we meet people from other cultures and it is interesting to see the various immigrants in England interacting, with relatively few English people around and, of course, we learn about life in Zanzibar. We get a damning view of the British and others who have taken over Zanzibar (The British never left anyone in peace and squeezed everything good out of everybody and took it home, and now a bedraggled lot of niggers and Turks have come to share in it.) But the key revelations, which should have come at the end come well before so the father’s discussions with his son give us little new, except a few details. In short, I do not think this is going to be Gurnah’s breakthrough book.

Publishing history

First published by Bloomsbury in 2017