Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah

This was very different from most of what I read (by design). Set in East Africa in the early(ish) 20th century, it has a fable quality to it (minimal interiority; characters known by first names; structure of episodes; etc.) That’s certainly consistent with this story being a pretty literal interpretation of an episode from the Koran, complete with names and specific plot points. As part of that, it doesn’t feel especially personal. It’s cultural and societal and political, things I don’t often like in fiction, but maybe because it was historical when written, or maybe because it addresses an area I’m mostly ignorant about, it didn’t bother me the way it often does.

It contains vivid descriptions of landscapes, and of injury and illness, that are succinct and precise. And perhaps in a sign of the fact that the book is actually modern (published in 1994), it ends what seems to be mid-stream on the primary story, without a resolution of the action concerning the individuals we’ve gotten to know. It deals with a form of slavery, and with a young person’s gradually understanding that he has been enslaved (encapsulated by a fellow’s repeated reminder that “he ain’t your uncle”). But the forces at play — German colonization, prior encroachment of Arab and Indian people, fragmentation, trade, survival, language—are complex, and it’s not easily reducible. Because the central character, Yusuf, only comes to understand the earlier parts of the narrative as he grows up, there are certainly things that I as a reader didn’t realize as I first encountered them. Another read is in order. 

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