Paradise by Adbulrazak Gurnah (Book Review)

Paradise, published in 1994, was written by Tanzanian author Abdulrazak Gurnah. Set in East Africa in the early 1900s, this wonderfully written tale follows Yusuf, a young boy who is taken from his parents to work for ‘Uncle Aziz’. We soon learn that Uncle Aziz is not his uncle at all, but a merchant to whom Yusuf’s father owes a debt.

Despite being the central character, Yusuf remains an enigmatic figure. His youth and position make him an observer in the scenes that play out in the book. He appears passive, experiencing events rather than actively participating in them.

“Events had ordered his days and he had held his head above the rubble and kept his eyes on the nearer horizon, choosing ignorance rather than futile knowledge of what lay ahead. There was nothing he could think of to do which would unshackle him from the bondage to the life he lived.”

Through his eyes we see a world in motion. With Uncle Aziz (aka the merchant or seyyid), Yusuf travels from the coast into the dangerous interior seeking to trade. It is also a world in flux. Yusuf and his fellow travellers hear stories of the Europeans, who, it was said, could “eat metal”.

In one legend, “it was said that the European possessed a ring with which he could summon spirits of the land to his service”. One trader “swore that he had seen a European fall down dead once and another one come and breathe life back into him”.

There are many colourful characters in the story. Gurnah provides limited physical descriptions of each character, but we learn about them through their actions and dialogue. The most significant physical trait of any character is Yusuf’s beauty, which attracts a lot of attention, usually unwanted.

Though Gurnah is light on description for the characters, he adopts evocative descriptive language to paint a picture of the physical world. Stories of what lies beyond the known world also abound in this book. One of my favourite quotes comes from Hussein, a man from Zanzibar:

“‘When you get as far as the lakes in your travels you’ll see that the world is ringed with mountains which give the green tint to the sky. Those mountains on the other side of the lake are the edge of the world we know. Beyond them, the air has the colour of plague and pestilence, and the creatures who live in it are known only to God. The east and the north are known to us, as far as the land of China in the farthest east and to the ramparts of Gog and Magog in the north. But the west is the land of darkness, the land of jinns and monsters. God sent the other Yusuf as a prophet to the land of jinns and savages. Perhaps he’ll send you to them too.'”

At the same time, the book explores the more earthly meaning of paradise. For Yusuf, this must be the merchant’s magnificent garden. Unprompted, he begins to tend the garden. In so doing, he meets the merchant’s wives, setting him on a dangerous path which in his youth and naivety he seems not to fully comprehend.

Religion is a central theme in the story. Some of the most lively debates occur between Hamid, a Muslim shopkeeper which Yusuf works for, and Kalasinga, a Sikh mechanic. Though friends, the pair argue and make fun of one another and their respective beliefs.

“‘Where is this garden?’ Kalasinga asked. ‘In India? I have seen many gardens with waterfalls in India. Is this your Paradise? Is this where the Aga Khan lives?’

 

‘God has made seven heavens,’ Hamid said, ignoring Kalasinga and turning his head aside as if to address Yusuf alone. His voice was slowly softening. ‘Paradise is the seventh level, itself divided into seven levels. The highest is the Jennet al Adn, the Garden of Eden. They don’t allow hairy blasphemers in there, even if they can roar like a thousand wild lions.’

 

‘We have gardens like that in India, with seven, eight levels and so on,’ Kalasinga said. ‘Built by Mogul barbarians. They used to have orgies on the terraces and keep animals in the garden so they could go hunting when they felt like it. So this must be Paradise, and your Paradise is in India. India is a very spiritual place.”

The book is light on plot. Nothing moves at breakneck speed. I’ve read a number of mixed reviews on Paradise, and many of the negative reviews seem to centre on the lack of exciting storyline. If you are looking for action and excitement, I’d recommend you look elsewhere.

If, however, you are looking for a book that explores – in a thoughtful albeit slow way – themes such as religion, tradition and a world in transition, this is a great read.

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