Abdulrazak Gurnah’s ‘Memory of Departure’: A critique

Thursday October 14 2021
Nobel pic

Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.

By Charles Makakala

I am joining this Abdulrazak Gurnah party quite late. While I have come across Prof Gurnah’s name before, the little grey cells didn’t register him properly until he was announced as the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. I guess it is impossible not to pay attention to him anymore.

You have to love reading to become a good writer. A piece of well-written story can send a discerning reader into a frenzy of imagination, helping to unlock creative juices sometimes. So, when I realised that I have been missing out on Gurnah’s party, I knew that that had to be corrected at once.

But being introduced to someone’s work once he has been so honoured tends to come with its own dilemmas: you know that this is a master, and you naturally wish to approach his work with reverence, trying to understand his tricks and what makes him tick. But you have to remain your usual critical self, otherwise what are you? That’s the struggle I had as I approached Gurnah’s Memory of Departure’, and, honestly, I have hardly read another novel the same way before. Therefore, it’s with great trepidation that I have to say that if you are considering immersing yourself into “Gurnarian literature”, Memory of Departure should be the last book that you read.

The novel is a story of a young man of mixed African-Arab origins called Hassan growing up in an unnamed coastal town in post-independence East Africa. His family was outrageously dysfunctional – led by a whoring, abusive, and drunkard of a father. When Hassan was still a little boy, his slightly older and adventurous brother, Said, died in a fire accident at home. In an attempt to absolve themselves from responsibility, Hassan’s parents wrongly blamed him for the accident, the fact which created an invisible rift between them for years to come.

Being a more normal person in his family, Hassan had a yearning to leave for England in search of a better life, the fact which he announced to his father soon after he had “become a man”. His father asked Hassan’s rich uncle in Nairobi – Bwana Ahmed – for assistance, who in turn called for Hassan to visit Nairobi once Hassan had finished his final exams.

In Nairobi, Hassan failed to deduce his uncle’s true intentions. As days passed on, Ahmed took Hassan around his enterprises and offered him a job. At home, Hassan and Ahmed’s daughter, Salma, developed a fancy for each other, the fact that didn’t escape Ahmed’s attention. So, when the couple returned home late one evening, Ahmed went into a fit of rage. In this moment of unrestricted candour, Ahmed revealed how low he thought of Hassan and his poor family, as he chased him away. Hassan promised to come back for Salma.

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Back home, Hassan learns that he has passed his exams and he can go straight to university. Unfortunately, his family cannot afford university. As he reflected on his family’s situation, he felt sorry for attempting to leave. So, he chooses a government-funded teaching position which would keep him home. But, Zakiya, Hassan’s rogue younger sister, kept nagging him to pursue his dreams. Ultimately, Hassan resolves this dilemma by finding a position in a ship that takes him to Asia. From Bombay, India, Hassan writes a long letter to Salma narrating his journey since they were together – the memory of his departure.

Memory of Departure is developed through six chapters, with one major development in every chapter. From very early in the book, the author displays unique ability to narrate events with a great attention to detail. Knowing this, he was probably too reliant on this quality, thus failing to develop his story and his characters properly. Ultimately, there are just so many disjointed portrayals of the coastal landscape one can take without a solid story to make them meaningful.

In this early part, Abdulrazak’s style is also quite astonishing. I may have grown a generation after this author, in a coastal town too, but I find his depiction of his unnamed town quite disturbing. Yes, I can smell the filthy toilets, see the squalid houses, even understand a brothel next door, but stories of little boys’ asses, grandmothers’ urine, bestiality, and jerking off, make the reading quite unreal. If you are looking for a good story, you will not find it here.

In Chapter Four, though, this is where things come alive with the introduction of Bwana Ahmed, Salma, and Mariam, Salma’s university friend. These are interesting characters with different layers. And this is where the narration becomes purposeful and the dialogue engaging. In fact, the dialogues between Mariam, Salma, and Hassan are the most captivating portions of this novel. If there is anything that can be salvaged from this book, this is where one can find it. And this is where the flashes of genius that this author possibly possesses are seen.

When I was reading Memory of Departure I didn’t know that this was Abdulrazak Gurnah’s first novel. So, when I realised that, in the middle of this review, my mind rested a bit – probably this is the work that reveals the long path that Gurnah had to travel to get to where he is today. Experts observe that it took Agatha Christie five books to produce The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her masterpiece, one can only hope that things got better for subsequent Gurnah’s novels as his career did.

Respect, sir.