you really must leave home, don't go without your incense
examines the reinvention
of the past in a
tale of exile, By the Sea
offers the novelist or poet one of the richest seams of fuel
for writing. It provides an ending that is no ending at all:
memory remakes whatever facts precede departure, glossing
them with imagination. And whether the exile is voluntary
or forced, literal or metaphorical, displacement opens up
a vivid cut of loss, a liability for myriad reinterpretation
and retelling of whatever stories might lurk there, silted
up in the alluvial grit of time.
fact, the literature of exile has proper claim to being the
most venerable of genres. Think of the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh,
now 5,000 years old and dense as ever with revelations; or
the Odyssey (actually, Homer is said to have filched scenes
from Gilgamesh). And it's a persistent fascination, something
Larkin described, in Poetry of Departures, as 'this audacious,
purifying, elemental move,' the mere prospect of which left
him 'flushed and stirred'.
one of the mainsprings of Abdulrazak Gurnah's writing, is
featured in Paradise, shortlisted in 1994 for both Booker
and Whitbread prizes, and his fifth novel, Admiring Silence.
It is the fixed perspective of exile that motors this, his
sixth novel: by the time the central character opens the narrative,
things have already fallen apart behind him. The novel is
a reinvention as much as a remembrance of things past, with
the author as latter-day Shahrazad, staving off the reader's
Sea is told from a variety of viewpoints, offering conflicting
variations of the truth, both deliberately, to deceive, and
through memory's decrepitude. The main dynamic of the tale
is a simple one: a man flees home and lives as an exile by
the sea. But its simplicity is itself revealing: the facts
leave everything out. Because By the Sea is an epic unravelling
of delicately intertwined stories, lush strands of finely
wrought narratives that criss-cross the globe; as the main
protagonist, Saleh Omar, puts it, stories of 'people too feeble
after all to resist the puniness and raggedness of our souls...
memories I have no power to resist and which come and go to
patterns I cannot anticipate'.
the novel's underlying plot-line is deceptively simple, its
early phase includes a pat, whistlestop exposition of the
debates surrounding asylum-seekers and refugees, as told by
a character called Kevin Edelman, an immigration official
at Gatwick airport. His task is to decide whether Saleh should
be granted admission to the UK, or returned to Zanzibar.
frustrated by the oversimplification of the asylum debate
here, until I noticed that an elegant trick was being performed:
it is precisely this reductivism that Gurnah is challenging,
presenting the flatness and familiarity of such oversimplifications
before undermining them with the more potent lyricisms of
life, as actually lived.
I'm sure the author has no axe to grind, his novel can almost
be seen as a poetic manifesto against the tyranny of language
when used as a tool of the state. The poetry of storytelling
completes the picture of history, of how we see ourselves,
rather than being an addendum to culture. So Gurnah offers
Kevin Edelman up as a caricature, then gently mocks us for
accepting this slick skin of dumbness: there are complexities
implicit even in his name - Kevin's parents were refugees.
And he presents an asylum-seeker, labelling him, and that
way reducing him, before giving him voice.
Saleh to the UK, Edelman also steals his only possession of
worth: a mahogany box of a rare incense, Ud-al-qamari, the
last relic of a richly various life. The metaphor could not
be better. The incense is a perfect mnemonic for Zanzibar.
And the box, stolen, is a Pandora's box of thieved memories.
Retelling the stories that Saleh bears with him is part an
act of confessional disclosure - Saleh as ancient mariner,
hoping to shrive his soul - and part a move towards repossession
of a history otherwise lost or obscured by lies.
of the title is both the literal sea that Saleh lives beside
- first the Indian Ocean, then the sea off a nameless English
seaside town - and the sea-as-metaphor, profound, protean.
Gurnah appears to be making a similar metaphorical claim to
Bruce Chatwin's: we are all bound by the sea of a collective
imagination, an unconscious grammar of experience, flowing
forever beneath both language and myth.
that, we are much closer to one another than we think, genealogically
linked, despite differences. As one character puts it: 'All
of us are children of the land.' Gurnah also makes frequent
reference to a story by Melville, master of the sea-as-metaphor.
As with the search for Moby Dick, Gurnah is in pursuit of
stories that are 'always slipping through our fingers, changing
shape, wriggling to get away'. And as with Ishmael, a voluntary
marine refugee, exile has given Gurnah a perspective on the
'balance between things' that is astonishing, superb.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005