‘The whole world ends up in London somehow’, I said. ‘The British never left anyone in peace and squeezed everything good out of everybody and took it home, and now a bedraggled lot of niggers and turks have come to share in it.’
Emigration is often thought of as a planned event – that people spend years, and a lifetime’s worth of savings, in making good their escape to the West. This may often be true, especially for adults, but children are more vulnerable to whimsical winds blowing their lives off-course, uprooting them, before dumping them on foreign soil.
And from just such a Year Zero, compelling stories have been spun – of the wretch washed up on our shores, who is then fostered, nurtured, and grows up to be a titan. Or the wretch who wished upon a star, prayed for all the good things, but was cut short by abuse and exploitation. Or of the wretch who was fostered and nurtured, and then grew up to hate us. Etc…
Gravel Heart by the Booker Prize nominee Abdulrazak Gurnah, is a novel in part about migration, but it avoids all set-piece moves. Yes, it’s a story of a teenager from the East African coast, from the island of Zanzibar, moving to London in the 1980s. But it’s not a polemic on Africa or Britain or immigration. Also, the 1980s was a period wherein old-school, ‘unrefined’ racism was in decline in Britain – and so in keeping with that reality, racism surfaces, but only in the background. Furthermore, whilst the protagonist ekes out a life on a shoestring budget, he’s not destitute.
Gravel Heart is a novel that drops many ideas, but chooses not to flesh them out: of colonialism, post-colonialism, and how disruptive the new world was and remains, upon old-world thinking:
“Maalim Yahya was not one of those ascetic religious scholars who worried that the wrist watch was a challenge to God’s mastery of the day … But nor did he give a second thought to the ingenuity which provided the aeroplane which was waiting there to take him to Dubai. It could have been a donkey or a dhow, any means of travel that God provided. Allah Karim. … It was still possible at that time to live in a small place without television or the Internet…and to live a life of vindicated self-assurance.”
That these big themes aren’t overtly developed is a shrewd move – it not only allows them to gestate within the reader, but also ensures that the story per se – of familial conflict, of the disconnect between fathers and sons, of building a new life from the ground up, becoming an adult and discovering sex – never gets overshadowed. From the narcissistic uncle to the meek father, the realist mother and the survivor that is the protagonist – Gurnah has created complex characters that live and breathe outside of their immediate environs. Salim, the teenage African émigré, is battered by many ill-winds (most of which are not proto-typical), but his individual personality cuts through them all. And that the same holds for each character makes the novel extremely powerful, when its payload finally detonates.
Any Cop?: Gravel Heart is a panoramic novel that succeeds at every level – it outlines epoch-defining themes with an all-African cast of main characters, and yet in no way can this be considered ‘black fiction’. Rather, and more simply, it is literary fiction of the highest calibre. A bitter-sweet and intensely human story, told by an undisputed master.