Following is a review of Desertion, a novel by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Anchor Books, NY, 2005.
This intriguing novel by a Zanzibari author relates several interconnected stories that link three generations of families. The author provides great insight into the mores and motivations of the Swahili society of the first part of the 20th century, about what was proper, what was not and what was scandalous. Obviously tension in the novel relates to where events and actions fell along that scale.
The first installment takes place in a never named town that is obviously Malindi in the early years of British colonialism. Pearce, an exhausted European stumbles out of the bush and collapses. He is rescued by a Swahili shopkeeper and nurtured by his sister Rehena before he is taken in by the imperious British district officer. The latter assumed that Pearce was victimized by the villagers, so treats them harshly. Peace, however, wants to thank them for their hospitality. Their fate unfolds gently with great insight into conflicting values. The fact that Pearce and Rehena ultimately become lovers scandalizes all communities.
The story picks up in Zanzibar in the next generation as a family of two brothers and a sister ply their way through growing up. Rashid, the narrator of the novel, emerges as himself, a studious, introspective intellectual. His brother Amin is a more typical youth focused on sports and friends. Sister Farida too was self contained and ultimately became a businesswoman. The parents were schoolteachers. They and their offspring wanted nothing more than the modest success that they might achieve in the restricted colonial system and the conservative Swahili society. Scandal in this installment revolves around the love affair between Amin and Jamila, a widow and the illegitimate daughter of Pearce and Rehena. Meanwhile colonialism comes to an end and with the subsequent revolution Zanzibar is thrown into chaos as are the lives of all concerned. Rashid, ignorant in the ways of the world, goes off to London to university.
Desertion is an apt title because - perhaps like in life - no story comes to a happy ending. Someone always leaves. The constraints of society and reality prevail, yet the characters are real and they struggle even as their passion disrupts families around them.
I enjoyed this book. The writing has a lyrical quality to it that aptly evokes the time and place. The narrator muses about the characters that he well depicts, but does not always understand.