Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Tanzanian born novelist settled in Britain, has produced several novels, of which Paradise was shortlisted for the Booker and Whitbread Prizes, By The Sea was longlisted for the Booker Prize and awarded the RFI Temoin de Monde Prize and Desertion was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. The Last Gift, published in 2011, follows his earlier work on the theme of immigration and the life in the place of his origin, Zanzibar, as well as his present homeland, Britain. It is a story that plays with memory and resistance, which are related to cultural roots. Zanzibar is a distant memory for the protagonist Abbas in the novel, who is sixty-three years old like the writer himself, and he tries his best to hold it to himself through his last days in Norwich, until the moment he realises that he owes his children at least a clue to their ancestry. The novel deals with the life of the family that consists of Abbas, his wife Maryam and their children Hanna/Anna and Jamal.
The Last Gift evolves through third person and first person narratives, giving almost equal importance to the lives of all the four characters. However, the psychological tension among the characters and their approach to their immigrant status in Britain provide space for analyses of the clash between first and second generation expatriate responses to life situations in Britain. There could be a clear demarcation between the way the parents, Abbas and Maryam, live and reflect upon their lives and what their children, Hanna and Jamal, make of their unique, bewildering and sometimes opportune life experiences. It is clear from the beginning that their race and skin colour demarcate them all through the changing times and cultural shifts in Britain. And all of them learn to cope with it, even as they falter at times. Alev Adil, in a review of the novel, observes:
Gurnah is the master of the particularity of displacement:
how, despite the fact that this is an increasingly common
state, migration is always an individual experience. His novels show how memory evades history. Gurnah is engaged by the guilt of departure more than he is by the difficulty of belonging. His heroes are story-tellers, rewriting history, telling tall tales in order to remake and escape themselves. Their stories of flight map routes between loss and freedom, old betrayals and new loyalties.
This is an attempt to sketch the significance of immigration and race in the novel, with special reference to the gap in psychological responses between the first and second generation expatriates, signified in the novel as the parents and the children respectively.
The novel opens with the description of the sudden illness of Abbas – the result of neglected diabetes. He has a fall, and then a few strokes follow it. While he is bedridden and is found unable to speak, something starts to trouble him. Even though he had been an affectionate father who blessed his children with several vivid storytelling sessions, he had evaded the most significant story – the one that involved him. He kept on dissuading his family members in his own ways, whenever they showed some interest in his past. He never even told them about the place where he came from – Zanzibar. They knew of him as a sailor who landed up in Britian, found Maryam in a Boots shop in Exeter, fell in love with her at first sight and said, “Yallah, let us get out of here” (Gurnah 16) before whisking her away to Birmigham and then to Norwich where they settled down. Maryam was an abandoned child, found outside the casualty doors at Exeter Hospital. She had been with several foster parents before she was finally taken by Ferooz, from Mauritius, and her husband Vijay, from India, when she was nine years old. They were kind to her in the beginning, but slowly she was reduced to the role of a skivvy, and more troubles followed when Dinesh, Vijay’s nephew, came to stay with them and started harassing her sexually. Dinesh turned Ferooz and Vijay against her and it was in fact an escape from all this when she decided to elope with Abbas.
Hanna, their first child, likes to call herself Anna, and is always on the look out to find a place for herself in the world of opportunities that Britain provides. She has good university education and becomes a teacher. She has an affair with Nick, whose family turns out to be white upper middle class racists. He is some sort of a megalomaniac indulging in the academic work which he takes as an excuse to have a double life. He is indignant even when his extramarital affair is found out, and tries to boss Anna further. She gets out of the relationship when she is twenty eight years old, and decides to face the world on her own. Her liberation from Nick coincides with the death of Abbas, out of a stroke.
Jamal, the younger child, does his PhD related to immigration issues. He dangles between his intellectual preoccupations and religious identity. He attends religious meetings, but is at a loss when it comes to the traditions and prayers. He resents the fact that Abbas never cared for them to have a religious or ethnic identity, but is more open to the final storytelling of his Ba and Ma than the seemingly disturbed Hanna/Anna. Though shy by nature, he finds his love in Lena/Magdalena, of Italian descent, in the apartment that he shares with his fellow students. He is able to connect better with Ma after the death of Ba, because she happens to work in a Refugee Centre and his research relates to immigrant issues.
Abbas, in his final days, yearns to speak out what he held within so far, but words don’t come easily to save him. As he improves with the constant care that Maryam bestows upon him, he starts speaking slowly. One day he makes her listen to what he wanted all of them to know ultimately. He describes his years of hardship in Mfenesini, where he went to school amidst the protest from his father with whom he had to lead a life of parsimony. His elder brother Kassim dares to take Abbas to the school against the will of their father, the stingy and parochial Othman. Kassim gets beaten up badly, but he persists on Abbas getting an education. Their sister Fawzia is married to a relatively rich family in the town, and when Abbas passes his school examinations at sixteen, she takes him away to the town and makes him stay with her relatives so that he could have his college education. He stays in a small storeroom with a slit on the wall for a window. He has the view of the sea from there and he focuses relentlessly on his studies. It is from here that he starts to peep on a young girl on the terrace of the adjacent building. She happens to be the foster daughter of a rich merchant. When he is caught staring at her with her knowledge, the aunt of the girl makes a fuss about her honour and gets in touch with Fawzia. They hurriedly arrange a marriage between Abbas and the girl, Sharifa. Abbas likes the life of rich food and habits in her house in the beginning, but slowly, he starts to feel that he is not being respected there. The two sons of the merchant are rich themselves, owning businesses and cars, and are notorious womanisers. They start bullying him, poking fun at his inexperience and innocence. When Sharifa gets pregnant, he has the strange doubt that he was trapped into the marriage and that she was already pregnant by someone else before the marriage was arranged. He slides away without a word from the life in Zanzibar when Sharifa is six months pregnant. He becomes a sailor and never comes back to Zanzibar. The news shocks Maryam, and then the kids. They couldn’t digest the fact that he was a bigamist.
After the death of Abbas, Maryam gets more active in the Refugee Centre and invites her children for a play that she acts in. Later, the children accompany her, as willing decoys, to the place where Ferooz and Vijay stayed. It is their first meeting after Maryam had left them with Abbas. She had been trying to connect with them many times, with no success. The meeting goes well, though what Maryam needed – more information regarding her origins – turn out to be bare and almost useless. She could just conclude that perhaps her mother was Polish and her father a ‘darkie’. She concludes further that she is not Jewish by any chance, because her name could then have been Miriyam, instead of the Arab Muslim name Maryam.
Gurnah lets the novel shape up through understatements regarding the place that the characters inhabit – Abbas says just ‘Boots’ (Gurnah 16) to refer to the place where he met Maryam first in Exeter. The places where the story takes place – Exeter, Norwich and Chichester (where Nick’s parents reside) are not described vividly. They are taken for granted, as places that are filled with people from various origins. Abbas and family inhabit their places as if they belong to them. What comes as a surprise, and of more significance, are the places Abbas and Maryam had come from, or even could have inhabited if they were not destined to be in Britain. Maryam grows up in Exeter only because she was found there and all her foster parents were from that area. She is left with no choice, until she meets Abbas. However, Abbas had seen many places, in his life as a sailor, and it was his own decision to desert his birth place and to never go back there. The younger generation, since they were born and brought up in Britain, don’t think beyond the places that they inhabit. Jamal is concerned about immigrant experiences from an academic perspective. But for Hanna/Anna, the fact that she is an immigrant turns out to be a burden. After listening to the story of Ba about his bigamy and the confession of Ma regarding Dinesh’s attempt to rape her, she is described as pouring out her frustrated thoughts:
‘I can’t bear this,’ she said angrily. ‘I can’t bear this shitty, vile immigrant tragedies of yours. I can’t bear the tyranny of your ugly lives. I’ve had enough, I’m leaving.’
‘Shut up, Hanna,’ Jamal said. ‘Let Ma speak.’
‘My name is Anna, you moron,’ Anna said, but she did not leave.
Anna also has an unpleasant conversation with Nick’s uncle Digby, a priest, who tries to patronise her for not being rooted to her culture and history. During a dinner with Nick’s family, he asks her where her father was from, and she just says that he is from East Africa. Uncle Digby proceeds to observe that Anna’s looks reveal that her father could be from the coast. He asks her where on the coast was her father from:
She noticed that the tempo and the drift of the conversation was making everyone smile, anticipating a little biographical sketch of distant but not unfamiliar origins. ‘I don’t know,’ Anna said.
After a puzzled silence, Uncle Digby said, ‘You don’t know where your father comes from! Well, I find this hard to believe.’
‘I don’t know,’ Anna repeated, unable to think of anything else to say.
‘I am shocked. Do you mean you don’t know, or you don’t want to know? It makes me sad to hear you speak with such little interest about your home, Anna,’ Uncle Digby said, his eyes lowered and his mouth turned down wretchedly.
‘I am British,’ Anna said, and heard the strain in her own voice as she spoke.
But this reluctance to enhance her origins seems to have come from the fact that their parents never brought them up in confirmation to any particular ethnicity. When Anna was in school, some of the Muslim parents had a campaign to exclude their children from the Christian practices there. Abbas joined with them, though he did not adhere to the religious fanaticism of most of those campaigners. This resulted in Anna and Jamal growing up with no religion:
It was her father who was the Muslim, although there was nothing Muslim about what he did or the way they lived. Sometimes he told them what it meant to be a Muslim, the Pillars of Islam, as he called them, praying, fasting, giving alms, going on the pilgrimage to Mecca, although he never did any of those things himself. He told them the story of Muhammad, and the Muslim conquests of most of the unknown world, from China to the gates of Vienna, and of its scholarship and learning. The stories were like great adventures, that was how he told them, tales of when men were giants and it was still possible to stumble on a treasure chest of emeralds and diamonds when searching for firewood in the forest. What their mother Maryam knew about religion was what she had picked up along the way, and it was the lightest of burdens.
Anna tries to adapt herself to the British society as much as she could, despite the fact people like the ones in Nick’s family see her as different from them. Though they try to hide it, they are curious about the ethnic origins and immigrant status of Anna. She couldn’t help but being blunt and at times rude, because she never had a real knowledge about her true origins, as long as Abbas kept them in the dark about his life prior to his meeting with Maryam. Anna grows up in England and doesn’t go to a church once, till her visit to a church with Nick’s family. But she also grows up with Abbas and Maryam and never gets to know much about her own religion:
If their Dad was a proper Muslim, he would have committed a great sin by keeping them in ignorance about their religion, instead of which he kept them in ignorance about everything, or tried to anyway. There was so much more he should have told them, a great deal more about a great many things.
Jamal is not as much disturbed about his immigrant status, perhaps because he engages with the issue academically as well. This perhaps gives him the required distance to it in order to approach it in a less sensitive manner. Anna had been very close to her Ba until she started her university education, while Jamal was not so expressive and affectionate from a young age. No matter how different Anna and Jamal happen to be, they have to deal with the same kind of issues related to their race and immigrant status.
Jamal turns out to be a lot more concerned about Harun Sharif, a black man who is constantly disturbed by the white children of the neighbourhood. Once Lena and Jamal find Harun falling down on the way and they help him out. Later they visit him in his house which was next door to them. Jamal could see a lot of Ba in Harun. Jamal asks him about the youngsters who trouble him by rattling his gate all the time and shouting abuse at him, and Harun’s response makes him think about his Ba, and he was genuinely concerned about the harm the children could do to Harun:
‘... They are probably more frightened about what they are doing than I am. I have seen enough in my life not to be frightened by children shouting abuse.’
Jamal could imagine his Ba saying the same thing. Me, I’m not afraid of these children. I’m more afraid of the police. But Jamal had no faith in children and did not think they could be disarmed by being ignored. They were as evil as everyone else. Just think for a moment of the tortures child soldiers were committing in African wars.
Anna, on the other hand, when faced with similar situations, is repulsed. She narrates an incident to Nick about spotting two female asylum seekers standing helplessly in the train station, and she does not extend any help to them:
‘... I saw these two women in Liverpool Street, a mother and a daughter, I think. They were so hopelessly fat, and so much at a loss, so confused in that huge station. It was depressing to see them. Black women. They spoke to each other in a language I did not understand, and were looking around in a terrified way. I don’t think they could read English.”
‘Then?’ Nick asked when she said no more for a while.
‘Then nothing. I went to catch my train,’ she said. ‘Asylum seekers, I suppose. May be I should have offered to help, but the sight of them depressed me. They were so helpless and so ugly. Is it really so bad where they come from?’
‘Probably,’ he said quietly.
She smiled. ‘You sound like my saintly brother.’
Anna’s life and attitudes change when her relationship with Nick breaks, and he pours out a tirade of abuse against her and her family. In an argument after it was found out that he was having an extramarital relationship, he tries to cover up his infirmity by abusing Anna. He says that he feels sorry for “people like you” (Gurnah 235), and when Anna insists on an explanation of what he meant by that because she thinks that he meant something about race, he bursts out:
‘I mean I feel sorry for people like you because you don’t know how to look after yourselves. Your father was a whingeing tyrant, bullying everyone with one misery or another, in the grip of a psychic crisis, so it seemed. But he only had diabetes, a thoroughly treatable disease, that’s all. Your mother was an abandoned baby and doesn’t know she is. Well, it doesn’t take a genius to find out that kind of information. Why couldn’t she just pay an agency to check it out for her? Or why couldn’t you, or your brother, do it for her? She, and all of you, would have known within days. But no, it had to be another festering drama. And then it turns out that your father is an absconder and a bigamist but he couldn’t just talk about this, the whole crowd of you in the grip of a hopeless melodrama, acting like immigrants.’
Anna was almost drawn into offering a defence but she managed to suppress her words. She had thought all this herself. What he added to what she had thought herself about her family was scorn. It jolted her the way he said that word, immigrants, exactly as she would have said it, with the same degree of disdain.
According to Zenga Longmore , “[T]here are minutely observed descriptions of the English attitude towards immigrants which, although caustic at times, reveal the warmth of the author’s heart” (Longmore). Giles Foden observes that “the book is in no way reducible to one or other position; indeed, it makes a virtue of its provisonality” (Foden). The generation of Anna and Jamal learn it better to claim a homeland where they are destined to struggle for an existence. For Abbas and Maryam, England is a place of final destination. They are concerned about the challenges their children face in life, but are also content with the fact that they are much better off when compared to their own struggle for existence in the initial days.
It seems apt in this context to reflect on what Bill Ashcroft observes in his lecture titled “Home and Horizon” on how the concept of ‘home’ is taken beyond the boundaries, the horizon, by the diaspora writers:
When will the traveller reach home? When will the exile reach the Promised Land? Unanswerable questions that reach into the heart of our sense of self, because the self must, above all, be located. But like that sense of self, ‘home’ brings with it the inescapable tyranny of limits, of borders. Whether home is a place, a location, a feeling, a tradition, an ethnicity, it carries with it the sometimes imperceptible, but ever present reality of boundaries ... it is into the horizon beyond the boundaries of home that the diasporic writer takes us.
Gurnah’s novel takes us beyond the horizons of lived experiences. It makes us worried about the existence of young and old people in a world charged with invented categories. In some cases, one’s racial identity turns out to be advantageous while in some others it brings in possibilities of endless conflict. Gurnah reflects a lot on how the new generation of 'immigrants' have to 'learn to live with it'. That makes us wonder whether there could be a phase where it should not be the highest priority presenting a combat zone, so that one could focus on other things that matter more in life.The best a novel like The Last Gift does may be to disturb us a bit, and force us to look for an easy or tough way out.
Adil, Alev. “The Last Gift, By Abdulrazak Gurnah”, The Independent, 27 May 2011. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts- entertainment/books/reviews/the-last-gift-by-abdulrazak-gurnah-2289421.html.
Ashcroft, Bill. “Home and Horizon” International Conference of the Association for the Study of Australasia in India(ASAA), Mar Ivanios College, Trivandrum, July 9, 2004.
Foden, Giles. “The Last Gift, By Abdulrazak Gurnah – Review”, The Guardian, 21 May 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/may/22/last-gift-abdulrazak-gurnah-review.
Gurnah, Abdulrazak. The Last Gift. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Longmore, Zenga. “The Last Gift, By Abdulrazak Gurnah: Review”, The Telegraph, 19 May 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/8498339/The-Last-Gift-by-Abdulrazak-Gurnah- review.html.