The Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah’s tenth novel Afterlives is set in German-occupied Tanganyika (now mainland Tanzania) in the 19th and mid-20th centuries, and depicts how the people were affected by the World War I and its aftermath. The book, writes Financial Times, “tells the story of four main characters whose lives intersect with each other in love and kinship, and which are moulded by great forces beyond their control, principally the colonial tussle over the land they inhabit.”
Here is a synopsis:
Restless, ambitious Ilyas was stolen from his parents by the Schutzruppe askari, the German colonial troops; after years away, he returns to his village to find his parents gone, and his sister Afiya given away.
Hamza was not stolen, but was sold; he has come of age in the army, at the right hand of an officer whose control has ensured his protection but marked him for life. Hamza does not have words for how the war ended for him. Returning to the town of his childhood, all he wants is work, however humble, and security – and the beautiful Afiya.
The century is young. The Germans and the British and the French and the Belgians and whoever else have drawn their maps and signed their treaties and divided up Africa. As they seek complete dominion they are forced to extinguish revolt after revolt by the colonised. The conflict in Europe opens another arena in east Africa where a brutal war devastates the landscape.
In her review for The Guardian, the Ethiopian novelist Maaza Mengiste writes that Gurnah “considers the generational effects of colonialism and war, and asks us to consider what remains in the aftermath of so much devastation. What can be salvaged when one of the consequences of colonialism is the deliberate exclusion of an African perspective from the archives? How do we remember, if we do not know what has been erased?”
Abdulrazak Gurnah was Professor of English at the University of Kent. His fourth novel, Paradise (1994), set in a fictional town in Tanzania, was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize for Fiction. His sixth novel, By the Sea (2001), was longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for a Los Angeles Times Book Award. His other novels are Memory of Departure (1987), Pilgrims Way (1988), Dottie (1990), Admiring Silence (1996), Desertion (2005), The Last Gift (2011), and Gravel Heart (2017). He was a judge for the Booker Prize in 2016.
The issues of “colonialism and the value of individual lives” is “a question that Abdulrazak Gurnah has repeatedly addressed in his long career as a novelist,” notes the Evening Standard. His novels “repurpose the sturdy elements of 19th-century fiction—orphans and runaway children, businessmen wily and otherwise, complicated wills, fortunes gained and lost, stolen caskets, unexpected letters—to fiercely original effect.”
Afterlives was published by Bloomsbury in September 2020.