Abdulrazak Gurnah: Desertion

If you intend to read this, do not allow the abrupt and tidy ending of the love story in the first part to dissuade you from continuing. That’s not exactly how it ends. Make sure you persevere until the second to the last chapter to find the poetic piece of the puzzle that renders the last chapter almost unnecessary and makes the whole book worth reading.

And do not read this if you are in a hurry. It is writing that begs you to slow down, to savor elegant lines such as “…he was an upright shadow moving so slowly that in that peculiar underwater light his approach was almost imperceptible, inching forward like destiny”; it is writing that urges you to be there in an East African town of a British protectorate with Hassanali when he finds the half-conscious sunstricken Englishman, Martin Pearce, in 1899. 

1899, only a year after our independence from another entitled European power who thought the world was intended for European colonization. “So I had to learn about that,” our narrator remarks, “and about imperialism and how deeply the narratives of our inferiority and the aptness of European overlordship had bedded down in what passed for knowledge in the world.” 

As a Filipina, this book made me understand and applaud the Nobel Prize motivation — for Gurnah’s “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

As a woman, I felt the bitter aftertaste of the intergenerational injuries colonialists cause, not just to a place but to their women. 

As a daughter and a lover, I recognized that honorable layer of filial duty and the sacrifices we make for love.

As a reader, I relished the passages that put weight on the value of stories: “She missed his noises, his voice, his bulk, his presence, but after that she realized how much more she missed his stories.”

“It is about how one story contains many and how they belong not to us but are part of the random currents of our time, and about how stories capture us and entangle us for all time.” 

“It’s remarkable, isn’t it, that these people have got by for centuries without writing anything down… everything is memorized and passed on… It’s a staggering thought, that no African language had writing until the missionaries arrived,” says one English character in the book.

It is remarkable, and even more remarkable that Tanzania now has a Nobel Prize laureate in literature.

Desertion is a sorrowful title. But as it is written in my favorite chapter, “Sorrow has its gifts.”

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