“Such noise and screams and blood”: A Review of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s ‘Afterlives’ (2020)

AiW Guest: Judyannet Muchiri.

AiW note:Judyannet’s review is the first in an AiW series introducing Afterlives (no spoilers!) in the run-up to the third Africa Writes Exeter Book Club, March 30th 2021, when Abdulrazak Gurnah will be in conversation about his novel with writer Novuyo Rose TshumaSee below for further details of the event and related links…

In the wake of a bad dream, one of the protagonists in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives, Hamza, laments: “such noise and screams and blood”. These words keep resounding when one thinks about the disruption caused by colonialism in Africa – how our grandparents and ancestors must have felt with the arrival of those who set themselves up as colonial masters.

These words, we may also agree, aptly describe the general state of the world presently.

Reading this book, one is struck by how much things change and how much they remain the same across time and geographies. We are not living in colonial Africa, but there is still such noise and screams and blood. Even with this sad reality, how lucky we are to have writers like Abdulrazak Gurnah who bring us stories that afford pockets of relief and, dare I say, joy.

Afterlives spans across precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial East Africa and is brought to life through Hamza, Afiya and Iliyas – the book’s main characters. This is a story about the fights and struggles brought about by the colonial invasion of East Africa and told through its afterlives, as well as those of its primary period focus, the First World War, but it is also very much a story about people. In other words, this series of conquests were (are) not faceless but touch and shape people’s lives in several ways. Gurnah beautifully brings this home by weaving the novel through the relationships that the major characters cultivate in the course of the narrative. With this gesture, he elevates the story, probing the reader to watch and listen to what the characters have to say.

The plot follows Hamza through his days as an Askari (a soldier) with the German Schutztruppe – the official name given to the troops in the African territories of the German colonial empire – and his return to the only home he knew. His return happens just as Afiya comes of age and thus begins a love that gives us Iliyas, named after his uncle who, like his father, went away to war but, unlike Hamza, never returned. Through each of these people, and those they are in community with, different accounts of that difficult period emerge. For example, through the character of Hamza we get to know what it meant to serve the German forces as an Askari, and through Afiya we see resolve and kindness. Young Iliyas’ life gives us a glimpse into a sense of belonging and family, even in troubled times.

While Gurnah explores a variety of different themes in Afterlives, loss is prominent. In fiction which includes the historical account, authorial intrusion can emerge and, though useful when applied with tact, this technique can stand in the way of the story. This is not the case here as Gurnah weaves information into the story in a way that invites you in to imagine. There is great loss in the narrative, both communal and personal.  We first come across communal loss in an event where the invaders “burned villages and trampled fields and plundered food stores. African bodies were left hanging on roadside gibbets in a landscape that was scorched and terrorised…” in the wake of war. On a personal level, Afiya loses both her parents and as a young child she has to be taken in by strangers; as if these tragedies are not enough to bear, she also loses her first child in a miscarriage. We learn, too, that as a young boy, Hamza is sold and sent away as a bonded servant, losing his family in the process. And then of course there is Uncle Iliyas who disappears into the German army. In one way or another, the combined personal losses amount to great losses to the wider community. Heartbreaking as it is, this great loss is shown to serve a purpose in the ways it brings these people together. The reader comes to understand that in the unity of loss, people can be able to forge a community through hope.

For me, this is the key point of interest: what communal loss meant then, what it means now, and what we as people do with that loss. Does collective vulnerability, we are asked to ponder, become a productive resource for regeneration? Also notable is the way the author employs language. As with any war, the fight over East Africa by the British and the Germans was bloody. Gurnah captures this in language that is both accessible and honed in its craft. It comes together in an urgency that demands your attention yet simultaneously soothes, that draws you in and asks you to stay until the end. To articulate moments of softness, of kindness, of tenderness during dark times in such totality of the human experience is a gift, and Gurnah is well gifted.

In this ever changing world we live in, we find ourselves in times that are often bleak and uncertain, echoing over again with so much noise, screams, and blood. But what we can know for sure is that there will also be so much love and relief from family and community with whom we share our leaps and losses. In Afterlives, Abdulrazak Gurnah reminds us of this in a fresh voice that attests to his stature in the art. This is a book I highly recommend for anyone who wants to delve deep into this period in the wake of colonial history in East Africa.   

C. Mark Pringle

Abdulrazak Gurnah is the author of nine novels: Memory of DeparturePilgrims WayDottieParadise (shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award), Admiring SilenceBy the Sea (longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Award), Desertion (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize) The Last Gift and Gravel Heart. He was Professor of English at the University of Kent, and was a Man Booker Prize judge in 2016. He lives in Canterbury. (c. Bloomsbury)

Judyannet Muchiri is a gender equality advocate whose work sits at the intersection of gender, youth, and digital advocacy. She is also a creative writer who does short fiction, flash fiction and verse. Judyannet writes with the hope that her words will bring someone home to themselves when days are long and dark. Her work has appeared on Down River RoadThe MagungaWill This Be A Problem, and AzizMola. She’s into indie bookstores, poetry, and dessert.

Follow the link for Judyannet’s companion Q&A with Abdulrazak Gurnah about Afterlives These stories have been with me all along…”

And to read Florian Stadtler’s review of the book, part of our AiW Bookclub series on Afterlives, click on this link:A Reckoning with East Africa’s Colonial Histories


Abdulrazak Gurnah will be in conversation about Afterlives (Bloomsbury 2020) with Novoyu Rose Tshuma (House of Stone 2018 – see our AiW review of Tshuma’s novel) on March 30th, 4-5 pm (BST) in the third Africa Writes Exeter Book Club… Register to secure your place here or see below…

Afterlives is published by Bloomsbury. For more details and availability, see https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/afterlives-9781526615879/

‘One of Africa’s greatest living writers’ Giles Foden

Restless, ambitious Ilyas was stolen from his parents by the Schutzruppe askari, the German colonial troops; after years away, he returns to his village to find his parents gone, and his sister Afiya given away.

Hamza was not stolen, but was sold; he has come of age in the schutztruppe, at the right hand of an officer whose control has ensured his protection but marked him for life.

The century is young. The Germans and the British and the French and the Belgians and whoever else have drawn their maps and signed their treaties and divided up Africa. As they seek complete dominion they are forced to extinguish revolt after revolt by the colonised. The conflict in Europe opens another arena in east Africa where a brutal war devastates the landscape. Hamza does not have words for how the war ended for him. Returning to the town of his childhood, all he wants is work, however humble, and security – and the beautiful Afiya.

As these interlinked friends and survivors come and go, live and work and fall in love, the shadow of a new war lengthens and darkens, ready to snatch them up and carry them away.

www.africawrites.org | @AfricaWritesUK | #AfricaWritesExeter

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