When Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, Alexandra Pringle, his longtime executive editor at Bloomsbury, felt it was time for the Zanzibar-born Tanzanian author to receive the literary recognition he deserved. .
She thought her latest book, Afterlives, released in 2020, was her best novel yet. A historical novel about the brutality of German colonialism in East Africa, perhaps it was the book that tipped the scales in Gurnah’s favor for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.
Gurnah’s novels focus on colonialism, racism and xenophobia, timeless topics that feel particularly relevant in this era of displaced immigrants fleeing Syria torn apart by war and the political and economic chaos of Central America or from countries like Venezuela.
This certainly appears to be the year to recognize both the plight of immigrants and the contributions of immigrant writers to international literature.
At 18, Gurnah left Zanzibar during the 1964 revolution to live in England.
Then there’s David Diop, who won this year’s International Booker Prize with At Night All Blood is Black, a moving and horrific novel about colonialism and its impact on cultural identity seen through the eyes of a Senegalese fighting for the French during the First World War.
For this review, I chose Gurnah Pilgrim’s Way novel because of its connection to the West Indies. Like all of Gurnah’s novels, Pilgrim’s Way removes layers of emotional and personal boundaries experienced by immigrants.
Pilgrim’s Way demonstrates Gurnah’s remarkable restraint in presenting the stories of his characters. He has a perfect command of that old writing advice: “Show, don’t say. Gurnah shows the life and complex feelings of his characters without telling the reader what to feel or think. It evokes empathy while allowing readers to experience, even vicariously, the conflict and ambiguity that immigrants go through in their conflicted lives.
Gurnah’s immigrants grapple with identity in a new land they originally envisioned as the perfect escape. They are convinced that migration will improve their lives. But Daud, the protagonist of Pilgrim’s Way, finds prejudice and hatred in England. Just coming home can evoke great anguish and danger, as resentful and racist people taunt and threaten him physically. Her new life is difficult and degrading.
Daud’s quest to escape his past, as well as his unpleasant present, often leads him to reimagine his childhood. When he brings up nostalgic moments, readers will first wonder why he left his country and an almost perfect life, but brutal honesty quickly surfaces, putting false idealized images of the past in their rightful place. In truth, Daud migrated to escape hardship and in search of the better.
Almost every scene in Pilgrim’s Way creates a new path for him, a new emotional frontier to cross. When he arrives in England, he goes to a pub to escape his relentless loneliness. Instead, he finds prejudice and danger. He also finds nothing in common with those he works with. Everywhere he turns, he’s an outcast.
Daud’s obsession with the West Indies cricket team has continued throughout history. Michael Holding’s bowling and Clive Lloyd’s leadership inspire him and feed his waking dreams of revenge. Daud sees the West Indian team as a metaphor not just for beating, but punishing colonialism, and constantly taps into that fantasy.
Like many immigrants, Daud has a menial job that most people would not accept. But that doesn’t earn him respect. Gurnah’s descriptions of his job as an operating room nurse present a vivid image of an immigrant struggling to maintain a sense of dignity in a thankless and unpleasant job.
Alone, Daud seeks company and meets Catherine, a white British nurse. He looks for ways to express culturally appropriate behavior and lies about his past to raise his self-esteem. Catherine is horrified by the sordid conditions in which he lives and irritated by what she perceives to be his lack of ambition.
Their relationship turns into a cruel game in its own right, juxtaposed quite cleverly with the cricket matches that Daud obsessively follows.
He writes letters in his head to Catherine, as a way to express feelings that he cannot express. They replace the letters he never writes at home.
Catherine’s relationship with Daud is complex. It satisfies her curiosity and offers her the opportunity to challenge her controlling parents. When strange men and her friends berate her for dating a black man, she becomes arrogant and claims to have an open mind, but she is actually just playing her own game, seeking to gain her independence from those who are. control it.
For Daud, life is defined by cricket and relationship games. He’s been in England for five years and life isn’t getting any easier or better. He is still hopelessly stuck between two cultures, slipping in and out of truth and fantasy. He feels guilty for leaving his country, but cannot admit how he misjudged the country he thought offered opportunities.
He knows that living in England is a betrayal of his country’s colonial past, and yet, as bad as life is emotionally and economically for him, it is at least equivalent – and perhaps even better than the life from which he come. It now straddles the two cultures. He cannot come to terms with his past or envision a future in this new country where it is impossible to make good friends.
Most interesting is Lloyd, Daud’s white British friend, who is the antithesis of his hero, West Indian cricketer Clive Lloyd. Friend Lloyd claims to be brave and loyal, but he plays his own games, hiding vital information about himself from Daud. He pretends to agree, but a fierce fight with another Daud friend exposes his racism.
At the end of Pilgrim’s Way, Daud has a revelation about immigrants. He sees them as pilgrims traveling to unknown places throughout history as they seek a higher level of existence. They find themselves stuck between two cultures.
Gurnah’s books are not action-packed, intriguing novels. They are character-driven novels that encourage deep thinking. As an immigrant writer, Gurnah explores the identity of those who must determine who they are as they cross emotional and physical boundaries sometimes by choice and sometimes as displaced people. Gurnah’s novels define introspection on a whole new level.