By the Sea
New Press, $22.95 (cloth)
On the East Coat of Africa, monsoon winds carry boats out from the countries of the Persian Gulf and back from the ports of the Mozambique Canal. This is the "Land of Zanj," as the Muslim merchants call Zanzibar—in Arabic, "the country of the blacks." Here, in the tropical winds, a civilization stretches from Mogadishu to Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu, Pemba, Zanzibar—the whole of the East African coast, all the way to the Comoros and Madagascar. It is an old, old land, known at the beginning of the third millennium BC by the Pharaohs of Egypt and rediscovered by Greek sailors searching for the mysterious "Land of Punt," where abound gold, spices, ostrich feathers, and the ivory of fabulous wild beasts. It's a land where Bantu roots and Islam have intertwined since the tenth century.
The characters in Abdulrazak Gurnah'sBy the Sea are all rooted in these lands, nourished by tropical breezes from the wide open sea, molded in the philosophy of kesho—in Kiswahili, the art of being carefree—a philosophy that has created its own architecture, fashions, and refined culture. Even when the winds of history push them toward other, less hospitable shores—England, or the old, Marxist East Germany—Gurnah's characters are still the embodiment of mythic Zanzibar.
The story told by this novel defies summary. Its narrator is a refugee from an East African island nation who is seeking to enter England. Since his home country was once a British possession, he qualifies for asylum—yet, he is traveling on a fake passport. Although he is a cultivated man, he has been advised at home to pretend he neither speaks nor understands English. Why is this transaction, nominally straightforward, so mysterious? "I am a refugee," he tells the reader, "an asylum-seeker; these are not simple words, even if habit of hearing them makes them seem so." Gurnah's narrative will demonstrate just how un-simple these words can be.
From this situation escapes the genie of the story, like in a tale from the Arabian Nights. An immigration agent tries to dissuade the refugee from entering the cold, miserable lands of Europe, and confiscates a box of incense—the only valuable item in his bag. He is sent to a detention center, but a social worker named Rachel, who specializes in difficult immigration cases, intervenes on his behalf. The narrator begins to tell Rachel stories, starting with the tale of the origins of his incense. He lays on story after story for her, until the strands that connect past and present, magic and real, become thickly—andseductively—meshed.
The strands mesh because in this novel we are traveling the memories and histories of the Indian Ocean. We have become part of this universe that unfolds in front of us at a level where picturesque or exoticism become simply beauty and diversity. This is, in Antoine Volodine's term, "post-exotic" fiction—stories multiply each other, as in the classic legends, not losing the reader in their wanderings but leaving him thirsty for more. We are the Sultan before Scheherazade asking for more stories, like a vital need, a question of life and death. A sudden change in the course of the narrative brings in new characters, multiplying suddenly and with bravado performance the perspectives of the original story. From one anecdote to the next, the intervention of yet another protagonist, the story of seduction and betrayal continues to unravel.
From his new home in England, the narrator takes us deeper into his past. The thread of the story winds backwards to the monsoon of 1960, when an incense merchant, cultured and cultivated, whose politeness is "like a kind of talent, an elaboration of forms and manners into something abstract and poetic," seduces and dishonors the mother of a certain Latif. Seven years later, the monsoon brings civilian strife and a Marxist coup. As the island's banks are nationalized, the merchant's business fails. Houses change hands, families are ruined, governments change and fall. Nor is the refugee only a victim: as his story goes on, he encounters other refugees, here in England, who were ruined by his own father—including the same Latif. Slowly, the story takes shape. The refugee acquires a voice and a name, and as he does so, not only his identity and history but that of his country, with the deep changes wrought in it by colonization and revolution, become clear with a vividness that could never have been captured by a more conventional narration.
By the Sea leads us with cutting irony into the crossroads of a host of imaginary worlds—Indian, Arab, Persian, and African—and into the modernity of our multicultural urban centers, where the monsoon winds bring a Taraab music from Zanzibar, soft and seductive, carefree as Gurnah's writing. These circular winds, like orbs of incense smoke, pull us further, deeper, into the mosaic of familial novels. Each character could become a character in her own tale, a contemporary Arabian Nights story rendered post-exotic by its political relevance in modern times. Still, the shape of the story is firmly entrenched in the narrative tradition of Gurnah's Zanzibar. The only regret about this post-exotic legend is that it should end at all—there are other protagonists in this book whose flight we'd have liked to follow, whether they're blown by those tropical winds to the gray cities of England or other places by the sea.