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Review: After Lives, by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Riverhead, 2022. 309 pp. $28

In the 1890s, the German colonizers of East Africa suppress revolt after revolt with exemplary cruelty, meted out by their African askari troops. Over the course of years, the turmoil and hard times displace two people: Hamza, a teenage boy who flees domestic trouble to enlist in the askari corps; and Afiya, the young sister of another such would-be soldier, who leaves her in care of a childless businessman and his wife.

After excruciating years in military service, including the First World War, Hamza returns to the town he left and meets Afiya, now nineteen. Her physical sufferings don’t match his, but she’s paid a high price for being female. Before she settled with the businessman, her then-guardians took the money her brother had left for her upkeep, only to treat her like a slave, even beat her for knowing how to read and write.

Karl P. T. von Eckenbrecher’s 1896 painting depicting askaris under German command trading fire with rebels (courtesy bassenge.com via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Afiya’s current situation, though kinder physically, has its perils nevertheless. The businessman’s wife restricts her social activities in the name of Muslim female modesty and imposes religious devotions that the young woman performs dutifully while looking for small ways to rebel, both for respite and to hold onto a sense of self.

The mistress of the household also plans to marry Afiya off, preferably as second wife (read: plaything) to a man much older than herself. Consequently, the nascent attraction between Afiya and Hamza must pass unnoticed.

The story bears similarities to Cinderella, except that Hamza’s no handsome prince, and he’s rootless. Both lovers are. As he once observes about a war wound that troubles him greatly, “The pain will get better.” How that happens for the two of them provides the question the narrative aims to resolve.

After Lives therefore explores how cruel humans can be, and how we withstand it, or don’t. Gurnah recounts in precise detail the brutality shaping the askari existence, whether from training, the German officers’ contempt, methods of instilling discipline, or colonial philosophy. The Great War, which has no name as far as the askaris are concerned, feels like a confused, bloody mess:

The askari left the land devastated, its people starving and dying in the hundreds of thousands, while they struggled on in their blind and murderous embrace of a cause whose origins they did not know and whose ambitions were vain and ultimately intended for their domination. The [baggage] carriers died in huge numbers from malaria and dysentery and exhaustion, and no one bothered to count them. They deserted in sheer terror, to perish in the ravaged countryside.

I’m somewhat familiar with the colonial history of Africa, but I’ve never read anything about it as vivid or compelling as After Lives. By the time Hamza finally gets free, his body and soul have been punished terribly, yet he’s quietly unbowed. He’s withstood routine brutality and occasional help from unexpected quarters, but even the latter feels condescending, delivered from the pretense of moral and intellectual superiority. You have to admire a character as steadfast and dignified as Hamza, who can withstand injury and insult. But be warned: there’s no character arc to speak of, no change.

Afiya, though she copes with hardships she’s even less responsible for—she didn’t enlist in anything—travels a path less fraught, if no happier. I find her somewhat idealized, even a male fantasy in certain scenes, and, like Hamza, she doesn’t change. But she’s also appealing, and for similar reasons: she has the patience to endure until the pain gets better. A little guile also helps.

Gurnah’s storytelling style keeps its distance. This takes getting used to, but at least he shows plenty of feelings, unlike other omniscient narrations that tell them, with far less depth. The novel has much to say about colonialism, war, and, to a lesser extent, feminism, which sometimes reads like nonfiction, as with the passage quoted above. But again, it’s the story that counts, which packs a wallop.

I do find the first thirty pages confusing, full of back story I’m not sure is necessary, and the novel ends rather abruptly, with more of a political point than a personal one. But these obstacles shouldn’t deter you.

Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021. I mention that because it seems silly to glide over it; but I think that awards, even the most prestigious, often say little about an author’s true significance to literature, a judgment that changes over time, anyway. Read any Per Lägerkvist or Mikhail Sholokov recently? Rudyard Kipling’s white man’s burden sounds offensive today. Several years ago, I stumbled on a fine historical novel about the time of Charlemagne, The Days of His Grace, by a Swedish author I’d never heard of—Eyvind Johnson, who shared the Nobel in 1974 with Harry Martinson, whom I’d also never heard of.

So I won’t say that After Lives is deathless literature. But it is a good novel, about a time and place few Western readers know about, and for that, I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.