By the Sea, the latest work from the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, is a book full of journeys, each one as extraordinary and aching as the next. It is also extremely topical: a book about asylum-seekers in the U.K. (an ever raging issue, especially during the recent elections). Gurnah is never preachy, never simplistic; this novel, in fact, is constantly surprising, full of secret histories that emerge—mysteriously, even miraculously—like genies from a magic bottle. Here is an updated, more humane version of Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival: the wonder and despair of the refugee living the diminished “half-life of a stranger” in a strange land. Here, too, is the baggage of memory and regret that follows him, and the double isolation—from past life and present home—that Gurnah, England-based and Zanzibar-born, explores so well. (His last novel, Admiring Silence, was a poignant meditation on an immigrant’s distance from both his British wife and family back in Zanzibar.) Indeed, with By the Sea, Gurnah has only further established himself as a masterful, and thoughtful, manipulator of “stories of odysseys and impossible journeys.”
When Saleh Omar arrives at Gatwick Airport one cold and mournful November afternoon in 1994, he is carrying very little with him. He is bent by age and hobbled by decades of terror in Zanzibar, the small East African island that became part of Tanzania after independence. “I am a refugee, an asylum-seeker. These are not simple words, even if habit of hearing them makes them seem so,” he says. He has slipped out of his country under a false name, Rajab Shaaban, carrying a lone suitcase with a mahogany box of special incense called ud-al-qamari. And from that incense, the breadth of his journey will be evoked: “Ud-al-qamari: its fragrance comes back to me at odd times, unexpectedly, like a fragment of a voice or the memory of my beloved’s arm on my neck.”
Omar’s memories of Zanzibar are further awakened when his British caseworker, Rachel Howard (whose own ancestors’ journey, as Sephardic Jews, is yet another of the book’s stories), brings in an “area specialist” to help him communicate in Kiswahili. The specialist, Latif Mahmud, a fortyish professor and sometime poet, is also from Zanzibar, with his own tale of an escape to England in the ’70s, after traveling through the Eastern Bloc. And as far-fetched as it may seem at first (though this is part of the magic of Gurnah’s storytelling), Omar and Mahmud have a bitterly linked history stretching back more than 30 years. In fact, Omar’s borrowed name is the name of Mahmud’s father—a cruel irony that jars Mahmud’s memory of a painful episode in their common past. The troubles all date back to the musim, or winds, that in 1960 brought a seasonal trader from Bahrain who drove a wedge between the two families before leaving behind a single gift of ud-al-qamari incense.
Gurnah’s novel explores both Omar and Mahmud’s versions of their terrible family histories, in lush, supple, unhurried reminiscences that occasionally dip into shame and quiet sadness. “The moments slip through my fingers,” Omar reflects. “Even as I recount them to myself, I can hear echoes of what I am suppressing, of something I’ve forgotten to remember.” Mahmud, too, curses his slippery grasp of what he left behind: “I did not remind myself to secrete away the images and the sights and the smells of that moment for the sterile years ahead, when memory would strike out of silence and leave me quivering with helpless sorrow.”
Gurnah is a wondrously evocative writer for whom large themes—of estrangement and exile, memory and identity—seem to rise naturally from humbly trodden paths. But what are so miraculous are the turns that life plays on his characters, propelling them into a wider world of shifting borders and regimes. “That’s the way life takes us,” says one character, an East German woman who grew up as a white settler in Kenya before returning to a bombed-out Dresden during World War II. “It takes us like this, then it turns us over and takes us like that.” These may be “impossible journeys,” but they are not uncommon. Think of Omar: He has journeyed from his home “by the sea” in Zanzibar to a seaside bed-sit in England, where his housemates are Bosnian refugees and Czech gypsies. Or Mahmud, a “lonely Londoner” (like Sam Selvon’s unforgettable lost souls of the 1950s), whose life has become as colorless as the British sky. Gurnah’s novels are part of a fascinating literature of a collapsed empire and the myriad migrations of its people. With increasing reports of race riots and violence against immigrants in England these days, Gurnah’s wise and layered voice is all the more precious. Of course, no journey is simple—but the ones Gurnah describes are the stuff of great novels.