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Abdulrazak Gurnah: Paradise
Gurnah’s fourth novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1994, losing out to the abysmal James Kelman. The novel tells the story of Yusuf, a young Tanzanian, in the early part of the century. Yusuf lived with his parents in Tanzania. He liked his uncle Aziz. When Uncle Aziz visited, when Yusuf was twelve, he took Yusuf with him to work in his shop. It was only when he was there, that he learned that he was in a form of servitude, because of a debt his father owed Uncle Aziz, with Yusuf’s labour acting as a form of surety against the money owed. In the shop, Khalil is his senior and he too has been used as a form of surety for his father’s debt but, as his father has died, and his mother and the rest of the family returned home to Saudi Arabia, and as he has nowhere to go, he has stayed there. Life is not too hard for Yusuf, however, as Khalil is strict but not too strict. He rarely sees Uncle Aziz but, when he does, he is pleasant. Yusuf is a good-looking young man and the ladies take a fancy to him. Unknown to him, Uncle Aziz’s wife sees him from her house next door and she, too, takes a fancy to him.
Uncle Aziz often goes on commercial expeditions to the interior and on one occasion takes Yusuf. Though we only find out later, this is to keep him away from Uncle Aziz’s wife. He stays away some time, learning the trade in the interior, studying the Koran and having several adventures, one of which almost results in the entire group being killed. He still, however, manages to attract the ladies. All the time, we learn of the gradual European (i.e. German) takeover of the country and then the approach to World War I. When the Germans do intervene – for example to save the expedition from being killed by a local chieftain – it is generally positive, though myths build up about their prowess and invincibility.
Eventually, Yusuf returns and is now older and stronger. Uncle Aziz is away but his wife, who has some sort of scar, takes a shine to Yusuf and thinks that his beauty will cure her scar. Yusuf, however, is interested in Uncle Aziz’s wife’s servant, who is also married to Uncle Aziz, and risks the wrath of Uncle Aziz, against Khalil’s advice, by going there regularly. Will he run away with the servant? We never know as the story seems to suddenly stop in midstream. It’s not a bad story but probably not Booker Prize material.
First published by New Press, New York in 1994