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Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Uncle Aziz comes by the house every year. His visits are always a cause for excitement. The wealthy merchant and his men are not only accompanied by the smell of goods and perfumes, but also by an aura of prestige. Their visit to Yusuf’s family home brings honour – and usually a small parting gift for the boy. But this time things are different. Yusuf’s mother is clingy and emotional, his father distant until he, shortly before the departure, takes the boy aside to tell him that he is now old enough to go on a journey with his uncle. As soon as they arrive in the city, Yusuf is thrown into the midst of a new world of merchants and trade, a grown-up world he has never seen before. It isn’t long before Yusuf learns that he has been given to his “Uncle” in order to pay off his father’s debts. It takes years for him to adjust to this urban life he now inhabits, and just as he has found his rhythm, he is taken away again – this time deep into the continent on a trading mission with his master Aziz, a true adventure. The reader witnesses wars between communities, corruption and the challenges to trading, mixed with the challenges of adolescence known to us all. Paradise is a journey into pre-colonial times in Eastern Africa where Muslims, Christians, Africans, Indians, and Europeans navigate fragile social hierarchies. When Yusuf has finally understood the rules of social life, his position and the options open to him, the world is turn on its head by the arrival of European colonialism, leaving the young man to decide what future he wants to choose for himself.

With Paradise Abdulrazak Gurnah offers a history lesson from a new perspective but also a coming-of-age story and a tale of the disruption of traditional cultures and customs by the brutal arrival of colonialism. But there is so much more in this book, that reads almost like three separate novels in one. The stories of Yusuf’s arrival in the merchant’s world, their shared journey into the continent, and the emotional and social trials that face the boy as he returns from the country would each deserve their own book. While I know this is a criticism of some, I thought the variety of scenes and emotions in this fairly small book astonishing. The richness of this saga-esque novel leave you under the impression of having read much more than 250 pages – and I mean that in the best way possible. Religion, colonialism, and corruption are only three of the themes that are explored and learning about the through the ears of a rural boy growing into an urban man is fascinating. What I was missing was a deeper insight into Yusuf’s thoughts and feelings. For most of the book he remains strangely passive as the world happens to him. He is the observer, the learner, and through him we observe and we learn, but I would have loved to be able to observe him more. But, after all, Paradise is a brilliant work of historical fiction and never pretends to be a psychological novel. It is striking how Gurnah creates the threatening presence of the Europeans through their marked absence for most of the book. They are hinted at, rather than met directly. Until they are suddenly, unmistakably there. Paradise is definitely a convincing introduction to the works of the 2021 Nobel Prize winner!

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