‘Paradise’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah – An African Novel by Someone Who Really Likes Africa and Africans


‘Paradise’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah    (1994) – 247 pages


No, I am not going to claim to have more literary knowledge than the committee which picks the Nobel Literature winner. A writer’s stock rises and falls, there are revaluations and reappraisals. A writer may be neglected for decades like one of my personal favorites Dawn Powell, and then become an icon. Other writers remain neglected.

The stock of Abdulrazak Gurnah is definitely on the rise. If he is lucky, he will not become another Dario Fo or Sully Prudhomme or others who have been nearly forgotten despite winning the Nobel prize for literature.

‘Paradise’ is written by a guy who obviously likes Africa and Africans, so its perspective is much different from that of many Europeans who wrote about it and were terrified by Africa. ‘Paradise’ is not portentous like ‘Heart of Darkness’, far from it.

‘Paradise’ has qualities we don’t usually associate with novels about Africa. It is playful, and its descriptions capture the human qualities of the people as well as the beauty of the land. It depicts the great variety of people and places in Africa.

Our 12 year old boy Yusuf has the good fortune to have been born to a family living on the coast, and his father runs a hotel. However his father gets in debt to the Arab trader Uncle Aziz (not really Yusuf’s uncle), and Yusuf is handed over to Uncle Aziz to live and work for him. We accompany Yusuf on Uncle Aziz’s trading trips into the interior of Africa to trade with “the savages” there.

‘Paradise’ is the coming of age story of Yusuf as he loses his naivety and discovers how the world really works. There are many lighthearted moments mixed in with times of high drama.

‘Paradise’ takes place just before World War I which is when the Germans had become the dominant group in this part of eastern Africa which is now Tanzania. The Germans are always referred to as “the Europeans” and are known by the Africans to be more ruthless and cruel than anyone else.

Everything is in turmoil. Those Europeans are very determined, and as they fight over the prosperity of the earth they will crush all of us. You’d be a fool to think they are here to do anything that is good. It isn’t trade they’re after but the land itself. And everything in it. . . us.”

Many of the customs in this part of eastern Africa are strange to us. A man, especially a rich trader like Uncle Aziz, can have more than one wife. And the various tribes of “savages” in the interior can have even stranger customs than that.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

In ‘Paradise’ we get a more complicated, more varied, picture of Africa and Africans than we get in most novels written from outside. There are unfamiliar and unusual African customs and practices, but there is also much joking and camaraderie.

So how does ‘Paradise’ differ from other accounts of journeys into the interior of Africa such as Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’? Nearly all agree that the Africans, even those known as “savages”, are no match for the Europeans when it comes to cruelty or heartlessness. So, after World War II, is there anyone who will argue against it?


Grade:    A



2 responses to this post.

  1. Definitely on my wishlist! (I am assuming that cheap paperbacks will become available now that he’s won the Nobel.)

    Liked by 1 person


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