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Afterlives - Abdelrazak Gurnah (2020)
Translation of the initial article of Pangolin by Karen Ferreira-Meyers
By Karen Ferreira-Meyers Posted in Karen Ferreira-Meyers, Pangolin, Roman, Tanzanie on 19 mai 2023 0 Comments
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Traduction anglaise de Karen Ferreira-Meyers de l’article original en français de Pangolin :
Afterlives, Abdelrazak Gurnah
Bloomsbury Books, 2020, Nobel Prize 2021


I have read and absolutely like the latest literary work by Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature, Afterlives, published by Bloomsbury Books in 2020. A translation in French is planned by Denoël for 2023. According to Livres Hebdo, the publishing house will reissue Gurnah’s Près de la mer and Paradis in December: “With a print run of 10,000 copies each, the two titles will be the first by the author to be published in France since his consecration last month. Two other titles, Adieu Zanzibar and Afterlives, will be published in 2022 and 2023 respectively”.

Afterlives revolves around the 1914-1918 First World War. It begins in the early days of German East Africa at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, and ends in the last colonial delusions of Nazism and the beginning of independence.

This period of the First World War in Africa is not well known, despite the very important consequences it had. Gurnah takes us into the daily life of simple people who find themselves drawn into these warlike upheavals.

1918 is the end of the First World War, the defeat of Germany, the Spanish flu and its millions of deaths, as well as the Russian revolution. All this is not nothing, one could say that everything changed, the world changed completely. In Africa people are on the move, at the tail end of the armies, whether German, English, French, Belgian, Portuguese, there are askaris, African soldiers of the German army, all the military auxiliaries of the various armies, and the large groups of porters, at the bottom of the ladder, without uniforms or shoes, recruited more or less by force, poorly fed, poorly or not paid, who deserted at the drop of a hat thousands of kilometres from their point of departure. These porters are the emblems of this period on the continent, the main victims of the First World War in Africa.

These African youngsters, victims of the first promises made to recruit soldiers, promises of a better future, of studies, of advancement, of travel, those murderous hopes of the youth who bind their fate to that of the passing army, making a random bet on victories and defeats.

And the villages stripped by each passing army, these Europeans who look so much alike and yet are enemies, these villages which understand nothing of this war and are always on the wrong side, for having let themselves be plundered by the previous army, burned and brutalised by successive armies, young men and women torn away, raped, …

Gurnah’s novel recounts the fate of some of these young people who get involved in the war out of ignorance, and that of a young girl who finds herself more or less adopted by a family of merchants on the Tanzanian coast, in a small town. It is pleasant to read the life of these merchants as described by Gurnah. We can see ourselves there, between the warehouses and the workshops, where life is quite gentle despite the raging war all around.

Abdulrazak Gurnah takes us to the heart of the charming family life in this small Tanzanian town. There is not a sentence too long, not a sentence too short. Each sentence brings its own information, in a stylistically concise narrative, far from the sinuosity of some Arabic literature, there are no digressions, there is action, there are facts, no additional blablabla.

As an avid reader, it is interesting to see the impact of this tumultuous period on one family, to see on a human scale how these major upheavals touch people, the violence of the interactions between groups of people.

Gurnah obtaining the Nobel Prize is completely justified in my opinion. While I wait to read other novels by Abdulrazak Gurnah, I really like Afterlives, I appreciate the charm of the carpenter’s workshop, the child coming of age during these upheavals who whispers to himself and ends up writing stories, how literature emerges from all this violence. And, I really liked the end, in the German archives, in search of a missing person, whose trail is found in Germany, the twisted destiny of a young person who ends up badly. Without revealing the end: a destiny that sees violent whirlwinds crushing those who would like to believe they are supported and protected.

Afterlives and its author Abdulrazak Gurnah are a sure bet, to be read without hesitation, if only to be reminded of the history of the first half of the 20th century, where the author in passing even mentions the Italian-Ethiopian war of the 1930s – all this violence containing the seeds of current instabilities.

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