Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 16, 2021

Afterlives (2020), by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Reading the Nobels is an interesting exercise: as you can see from reviews here on the blog, my discoveries have sometimes been challenging but mostly a rewarding experience.  (Though once was enough with a couple of authors, regrettably both female i.e. Herta Müller and Elfriede Jelinek.)  This years laureate, Abdulrazak Gurnah, is however, an author I had already ‘discovered’ through sheer serendipity at the library back in 2014, and I liked Admiring Silence so much that I immediately acquired as much of his backlist as I could find.

Afterlives, however, is not from Gurnah’s backlist, those are a treat still in store.  It is is his most recent novel, published just last year, before the Nobel win.  And like Admiring Silences, it offers the reader a different perspective on matters that too often we take for granted.

Afterlives is the story of Hamza and Afiya, an ordinary couple* negotiating the impact of WW1 on their part of Africa.  It is Tanzania now, but was part of the German colonial enterprise till the German defeat, and then British.  It begins with the story of the arranged marriage of Khalifa and Asha and the appropriation of Asha’s childhood home by the wily merchant, her uncle and Khalifa’s employer, Amur Biashara.

(*Actually, Hamza and Afiya are not ordinary at all.  There is nothing ordinary about their story.  I use this word to signify that they are among the ‘little people’ whose lives collide with history when their part of the world falls prey to colonial ambitions and the warfare of great powers.  Louis de Bernières has similarly depicted the fate of Anatolian villagers in Birds without Wings and Greek villagers in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.)

At this time, early in the 20th century, German forces — latecomers to empire-building — were busy suppressing resistance to their rule, but were surprised by the Maji Maji Rebellion (1905-7) which cost more than a quarter of a million African lives.  They had expected their relentless and brutal colonial administration and the practice of starving the people into submission to overcome the steadfastness of the refusal of these people to become subjects of the Deutsch-Ostafrika empire.  In the aftermath there was a belated attempt to win hearts and minds, with some access to health and education for the native people.  And so it was that  the son of Amur Biashara, Nassor, went to school at fourteen and four years later was literate and numerate and a competent carpenter.  

Ilyas, the brother of Afiya comes into the story just before the death of Amur Biashara.  He gets a job on a German sisal estate and becomes friends with Khalifa.  Ilyas had been kidnapped by a schutztruppe askari [a local soldier in the colonial troops] but he had been freed and sent to a mission school, where he prayed like a Christian so that they wouldn’t make him leave.  Encouraged by Khalifa, Ilyas returns after ten years away to his home village and finds his orphaned sister Afiya being exploited by the people who had taken her in.  He rescues her and brings her home to where he boards, and he teaches her to read and write.

When Ilyas went to work in the morning, she went upstairs with the family and they made room for her without any effort.  They asked questions about her and she told them what little there was to tell.  She helped in the kitchen because that was work she knew how to do or sat with the sisters while they talked and sewed, and sometimes they sent her on errands to the shop down the street.  Their names were Jamila and Saad and they became her friends from the start.  Later, she had her meal with them when their father came home.  She was told to call their father Uncle Omari, which made her feel she was part of the family.  In the afternoon, after her brother came back from work and had a wash, she took his lunch to him downstairs and sat with him while he ate.

‘You must learn to read and write,’ he said.  She had not seen anyone read or write although she knew what writing was because it was on the tins and boxes in the village shop, and she had seen a book on a shelf above the shopkeeper’s stool. The shopkeeper told her it was a holy book you should not touch without first washing yourself as if you were preparing for prayer.  She did not think she would be able to learn a book that holy but her brother laughed at her and made her sit beside him while he wrote out the letters and made her say them after him.  Later she practised writing the letters herself. (p.36)

(You can see from this excerpt that Gurnah’s style in this book is to be a storyteller.  You imagine yourself listening to Ilyas and Khalifa as they chat after work in the evening.)

When WW1 erupts, Ilyas enlists, and the novel introduces the character of Hamza.  Ilyas becomes one of the thousands of missing, while Hamza returns damaged though not as a direct consequence of the warfare.

Every nation, I suppose, sustains the story of its wars, and most would valorise them.  Australians learn about the frontier wars, the Boer War, World Wars 1 & 2, and the postwar participation in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Afghanistan and the Gulf Wars. Maybe also about the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation (1962-66), and hopefully about peace-keeping missions notably in East Timor but also elsewhere.  We know a lot about World Wars 1 & 2 from popular history because there are British and American films, and numerous histories and works of fiction about them.  What Afterlives achieves is to widen that Anglo perspective to tell the story of these conflicts through a different prism, showing us lives we never imagined, who are caught up in vicious historical tides over which they have no control and no agency.

PS A word about the book design: the front cover is fine; that arresting image is highly appropriate.  But the back cover text is almost unreadable, with pale yellow print on the same blue background as the front.  It’s easier to read the name of the blurber in black than it is to read what they say.  What’s more, I’m wearing my glasses, but to credit the designer, as I like to do, I still had to use a magnifying glass to read the details on the internal cover about the cover design.  Can we please have some common sense about text legibility?  If it matters enough to include text on the covers, it matters enough to make it legible.

Author: Abdulrazak Gurnah
Title: Afterlives
Cover design: Greg Heinimann; Schutztruppe soldier wood engraving ©Interfoto
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2020
ISBN: 9781526615862, pbk., 275 pages


  1. I’m pleased to see that his work is being rushed back into print so I will not have to go the e-book route to read some of his work. This is the kind of exciting Nobel Prize, one that revives the career of an author unjustly overlooked.


    • Yes indeed.
      We have a prize here, the Patrick White Award, which White funded from his Nobel winnings to acknowledge authors who haven’t had the kind of recognition that they should. The winners are a roll call of our very best writers, some of whom have found it life-changing to be able to write full time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I borrowed this from the library but think I have to return it unread because someone else has put a hold on it and I just haven’t had time to read it. But it does sound like something I would like. Maybe I can re-borrow at a later date.

    As for text legibility, this was SO important in my magazine publishing days. We had rules about text size, colours etc. and had to be mindful of what text colours you could print on [LH edit] coloured backgrounds to take into account colour blindness (red on green is a big no no). But it seems that no one learns this stuff anymore. Minuscule text and text that runs into the gutter of books are big bugbears of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Coloured backgrounds not vomited. Lol. Stupid predictive text.


    • it’s crazy, isn’t it? Even primary school children learn not to use yellow in their posters because it’s hard to see on most backgrounds.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What did you make of the end of the book? I liked the way it brought some kind of solution to the mystery of Ilyas’s whereabouts, but I thought things sped up a bit too fast for me at the end. Otherwise, I too enjoyed reading about these “ordinary” lives in extraordinary times.


    • My initial reaction was disappointment, but a little reflection made me realise that ambiguity was how it had to be. That is what happens in wars: sometimes a person’s fate is unknowable, but also some nations don’t have either the will or the capacity to sort things out afterwards, and sometimes families don’t have the wherewithal to search through whatever records are available either.
      My father left Britain in the postwar period and didn’t know until his 80th birthday where his younger brother was buried. I was making a scrapbook of his life and achievements as a present for him, and I searched his brother’s name online. It came up in the British war service files and that gave the place where they had buried him. I printed out the certificate and included it in the scrapbook. I will never forget his face when he saw it, it pained him but it was if a great weight was lifted from his soul.
      Not long after that my niece and her children who live in London made a pilgrimage to the grave and held a small personal service for him, well over half a century after he had died. It makes me wonder how many people, even in a country like Britain, had died without ever knowing the fate of their loved ones.


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