Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 27, 2022

Gravel Heart (2017), by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Continuing my quest to read meaningful books that are outside the swamp of grim MiseryLit, I collected Gravel Heart from the library.  Gurnah’s Nobel citation is “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures” but he’s also ruthlessly honest about the post-colonial debacle in Africa, linking it not just to colonialism, but also to the vagaries of human nature.  I like his interrogation of what it means to belong, and who takes responsibility for the loneliness of the migrant experience, and I like his sly humour too.

In Gravel Heart, Salim escapes from difficult domestic circumstances to London, his exodus funded by Uncle Amir who has made good in the uncertain post-colonial terrain of Tanzania.  Salim is a bookish boy, but submits to Uncle Amir’s assumption of control over his life, and so begins Business Studies in London, only to fail his exams because his heart is in literature, not in numbers.  Amir, by then a senior diplomat, washes his hands of ‘ungrateful’ Salim, and so begins Salim’s long, lonely, guilt-ridden and impecunious struggle to qualify in the subject that he loves.  He lives in grimy overcrowded share houses; he sleeps with a girl who in a moment of intimacy says she’d marry him if he weren’t black; and he writes home to his mother Saida in desultory letters that obscure his poverty, his thoughts and his feelings.  She writes back in letters that obscure her health problems. Gurnah’s technique for showing this mutual duplicity is to include the draft letters that Salim writes but doesn’t send, followed by the ones that he does post, coupled with her evasive replies.

The catalyst for the rupture with Amir was his impulsive admission to Salim that his generosity was in repayment for something owed to Salim’s mother.  At home in Tanzania, Salim had never been able to find out why his parents lived separately, why his father Masud was a broken man, and why his mother still sent meals to him every day.  Somewhere in the background, there had been another man—of powerful but enigmatic status, and there was a half-sister called Marina who was only a toddler at the time of Salim’s departure.  But the silence that cloaks this entire situation is impenetrable — until, still unsettled about how to live his life, he returns to Tanzania after his mother dies.

His father is by then, an old man.  And in a slow, generous reconciliation, over many nights and in the consoling darkness, he tells his son the story of corruption and betrayal that destroyed their family.

Both sides of the family had fallen foul of post-colonial politics.  Saida’s father was taken away and killed for having been an anti-colonial activist on the wrong side, and Masud’s father, an Islamic scholar, went to the Gulf after he lost his teaching position in a government school when religious tolerance changed.  Once established, he sent for his family, but Masud refused to go:

…my disobedience when the summons came for the family to travel to the Gulf was unheard-of audacity.  I flatly refused to leave.  It would have been harder for me to do that to my father’s face, but he was not there, I could say to my mother that I was not going and nothing was going to make me change my mind.  This was my country, I told her, and I was not going anywhere like a homeless vagrant, to beg for mercy from people whose language I did not even understand.  What was out there that was so desirable I should give up everything I knew?  I would stay here and wait for life to return.

My mother and my sisters waited for me for a whole year while I finished school, hoping for me to come to my senses and to stop being so stubborn.  They passed on stories of the good life in the Gulf that were current then: how respectful and pious people were, how easy it was to get a job, a house, a car, how brightly lit the hotels, how full the shops, how ingenious the gadgets, how good the schools, how generous the state.  They believed these stories themselves, and either through inexperience or desire did not suspect them for fantasies of migrant labourers.  They passed them on to me, pressed them upon me, because they wanted me to changed my mind and leave with them, but I would not, even though those were terrible and violent times. (p.184, underlining mine.)

You can see how cunningly Gurnah undercuts the narrative that attracted people to the Gulf then i.e. alluding to troubles to come. This is the narrative that brings the hopeful from Africa to Europe,  risking their lives to do it.

[Digression: There are many stories of migrants betrayed by these fantasies but not all of them show that other migrants are often complicit. I know of some: Set in the US there is Katharine Weber’s Triangle about migrant workers killed in a fire at a shirtwaist factory owned by other migrants; Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss about Biju, too ashamed to go home while exploitation by other expat Indians means he can never get ahead; and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle depicting the same exploitation in the Chicago meat industry.  And set in the UK, Andrea Levy’s Small Island and Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners are both about the Windrush generation. In Petit Pays (Small Country), Gaby’s mother in Rwanda dreams of a French Paradise; in The Burning Elephant Sunil Seth’s disdain for his own people in Sri Lanka leads him to seek migration to Australia, a place he has idealised; and in The Historian’s Daughter a father sycophantic to the British colonial regime in India, exacerbates his daughter’s sense of abandonment by uprooting her to Australia, a place so far away that no search for her vanished mother and aunty is possible.]


Masud’s determination to stay where he belongs is partly pride—he does not want to participate in the humiliation of begging more privileged countries for entry—but also because he is in love, though the social mores of the time have so far prevented any meaningful contact.

I was then nearly eighteen, in my last year at school, resisting my mother’s pleas for me to leave and join my father in Dubai.  I had my home, I did not want to wander the world like a beggar without a country. […] And in a way I knew to be absurd, I did not want to leave because of Saida.  This was a secret I kept to myself and mocked myself for, but I could not deny its reality.  (p.190)

This attachment to the place where one belongs is reiterated for a third time later on in the novel:

I did not want to live like a stranger, like a vagrant in someone else’s country. I did not want to live among people whose language I did not speak and whose wealth would allow them to despise and patronise me.  I wanted to stay here where I knew who I was and what was required of me. (p.214)

Yet there is no idealisation of ‘home’.  Corruption in the post-colonial era is endemic.  Masud’s father has to conceal his travel plans, and his mother gives Masud her dowry jewellery for safe keeping  because it was illegal to take anything but the skin on your back and a few rags when travelling out of the country, just in case you were spiriting away the nation’s wealth.  

You can imagine [Masud tells his son all these years later] the immigration officers performed that part of their duties with great thoroughness. (p.192)

Masud goes to work for the Water Authority, because he has a contact who helps him dodge the (compulsory) national volunteer service schemes to promote an ethos of discipline and service. Getting his name removed from a list was arranged in one brief conversation on the phone. Even so, he has to be careful.

Our office was probably like many other government offices at that time, staffed by recent school-leavers without much knowledge and with not much to do, who were respectful and fearful of authority.  Everyone was fearful of authority because in recent times we had seen how stern it could be, especially with those it suspected of being reluctant in their submission to it. Authority relished its fearsome reputation and thrived on it.  It went about its ugly business as if no one could see what was happening, or remember who was doing it and why. (p.195)

Masud’s narrative explains how this culture of brutally corrupt authority and privilege for powerful men came to impact on Amir.  By the time Masud and Saida had married, Amir was a cocky young man, ambitious and reckless, and heedless of the risks he brought to their home.  It turns out that he owes much more than his diplomatic position to Saida…

I mentioned Gurnah’s sly humour:

The water distribution system was old, most of it built by Sultan Barghash in the 1880s in the twilight world of Omani rule as the British were impatiently shuffling in the shadows of our small corner of the world, waiting to take charge.  Barghash had been exiled to Bombay by the British for attempting to displace his elder brother Majid, something the Omani princes felt compelled to do whenever opportunity presented itself.  Their own father was reputed to have have killed his cousin with his own hand, at the age of fifteen, to become the sultan: a sharpened jambiya in the chest during a royal banquet and then a chase through the countryside until the cousin dropped dead from his wounds, the accursed Wahhabi usurper.

The British had no business interfering in this internecine mayhem — they had not yet taken our little territory in hand for its own good — but they did so anyway because they wanted the world to run as they liked it, even if it was only a caprice on its part.  Exile this one, replace that one, hang the malcontents, even bombard the whole town… why not? It was necessary in order to establish who was superior and had the power, and who should do precisely as he was told. Historians can always be found later to offer weighty policy explanations that prompted one petty meddling or another, to describe avarice and destruction in reasonable words. (p.196)

Salim has to decide whether to stay ‘home’ with his father, or to return to Britain.  ‘Baba’ is surprised to learn that he has friends there, because he had thought that Salim was ‘surrounded by angry English men and superior madams.’

‘That as well, but not all the time,’ I said.  ‘It’s not as simple as the lies they told us about themselves or the lies we chose to believe.  Anyway, it’s not all angry English men and superior madams, there are hungry ones and foolish ones and righteous ones too.’

That’s what I like about Gurnah.  He’s not interested in the simplicity of grievance.  He has the generosity to move beyond that and (to paraphrase what Salim tells his father), he wants to explore what comes out of what has befallen his characters.

Author: Abdulrazak Gurnah
Title: Gravel Heart
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2017
ISBN: 9781408881330, pbk., 261 pages
Source: Bayside Library


  1. Sounds like a really fascinating book Lisa … I love that he covers all that in under 300 pages too. It sounds like he gets to the human heart of “do I stay or do I go” that confronts so many people and that is never a simple decision.


    • I just love this author’s work… everything I’ve read so far has challenged and stimulated me.
      Talking of which… having you come across Julianne Schultz’s The Idea of Australia yet? I just started it this afternoon and it is indescribably good!


      • No … is this the previous Griffith Review editor?


        • Yes, she is. And although I’ve only just started it, I can tell that she’s brought all those years of experience to bear on writing this book.
          I met her once, at Readers Feast, when she was launching one of the Griffith Editions…

          Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds absolutely brilliant, I will definitely look out for this. Just the kind of book I like to get my teeth into.


    • This is when the Nobel Prize gets it right! I like any prize when it introduces a lesser-known author with a significant body of work for us to explore.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really like the sound of this, it sounds so complex and humane. I’ve never read this author but I’ll look out for him.


  4. I’ve not read this book but really enjoyed his Afterlives. He has a real knack of drawing the author right in although I was unfamiliar with the time period and political events of his story.


    • Yes, me too, I knew nothing at all about those events and the way he introduced them through his characters was excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was bemused to see that the value of first editions of his books went through the roof with the announcement of the Nobel award. I’d picked up the first edition of his first novel years ago in an Op Shop, and a few weeks ago gifted it to a community literary organisation. It makes me wonder if there’s folk out there who who make speculative purchases just prior to the Nobel awards each year, and whether Sport Bette won’t someday offer odds on the Stella.


    • I don’t know much about the market for second-hand books. I’ve met a couple of collectors at Rare Books Week, but their collections are way out of my league.


      • Oh a different world, where the cardinal sin is to actually read the book – especially not, as some of us are wont to do at this time of year, with buttery hot cross bun fingers while sipping on a cup of tea.


        • Indeed yes.
          Or a delicate martini, as the case may be…


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