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Soldiers in World War I (iStock)

Recognition by the international literary community can breathe new life into an oeuvre that has been hard for Americans to access. Such was the case with the work of Abdulrazak Gurnah after he won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature. When he was announced as the winner, many of his 10 books were out of print, and Afterlives hadn’t even been published in the United States. The first U.S. edition of the book came out in 2022, though it was originally published two years earlier in the United Kingdom.

Afterlivesby Abdulrazak Gurnah

Riverhead Books
320p $28


In this sprawling novel, two African men experience different fates serving in the German colonial forces before and during World War I. Gurnah reveals how the direction of our lives is shaped by chance encounters as much as it is by careful planning. We cannot separate ourselves from the institutional and social forces swirling around us, but rather we are marked indelibly by them whether we are conscious of it or not.

In Afterlives, Abdulrazak Gurnah reveals how the direction of our lives is shaped by chance encounters as much as it is by careful planning.

This is a book of survival, in which Hamza, one of the main characters, returning to town after serving in war, thinks that “keeping his head clear and his body safe required all the wit he possessed.” Before he established a new rhythm after the war, Hamza led a “fugitive and itinerant life.” Although it is not an effusive novel, there is much kindness and accompaniment to be found in these pages. Hamza receives plenty of this accompaniment from Khalifa, an African Gujarati bookkeeper whose path he happens to cross: “Khalifa liked to talk, and Hamza was a dutiful and tireless listener.” Khalifa takes Hamza into his household and eventually Hamza falls in love with the young woman who lives there, Afiya.

Afiya is the sister of Khalifa’s good friend Ilyas, who was kidnapped by a German at a young age, but he has a fondness for the language, culture and even the mission of the colonizers. His life path shows that colonialism is not simply of the body, but also of the mind. For much of the book, Afiya pines for Ilyas’s return and wonders what’s become of him after he volunteers to serve in the German forces. Afiya shares a special bond with Ilyas after he rescued her from a situation in which she was being abused. However, not long afterward, Ilyas volunteers to serve and leaves her with Khalifa. Ilyas is never seen again. We learn only at the book’s conclusion that he has ended up living in Germany, where he promotes the Nazi cause and “appeared on their marches carrying the Schutztruppe flag and on platforms singing Nazi songs.”

“The Germans are gifted and clever people…. They think of everything,” Ilyas shares before he leaves for the war. He even states, “They had to be harsh in retaliation because that’s the only way savage people can be made to understand order and obedience. The Germans are honorable and civilized people and have done much good since they have been here.” In this declaration, we see that Ilyas has taken on the posturing of the Germans, distancing himself from other Africans whom he dismisses as savages, unable to understand that he, too, is considered savage.

The novel explores communities that are alternatives to traditional families. While Ilyas perversely seeks belonging and community with those who have decimated his homeland, Hamza looks to public places of worship for comfort before he forms a family with Afiya:

There was always a profusion of mosques in this town, he remembered that from years ago. He thought he would go look for one, to have a wash and for the company. In so many places he had traveled there were no mosques, and he missed them, not for the prayers, for the sense of being one of many he often felt in a mosque.

One could argue that this sense of being one of many is, in fact, a form of living prayer, of realizing one’s place in the universe as one among many children of God.

Although there is hope in the pledge that Afiya and Hamza make to never to leave one another, and in Hamza the once-stranger becoming a key member of a household, the book brims with melancholy from the devastation that war brings, even when it is at a distance, but especially when it has been experienced firsthand. We see how the weight of the war bears down, forever shifting one’s perspective on humanity’s potential and purpose.

Afterlives conveys the sense both that life’s connections are tenuous and that one’s character can draw others into their life.

“The worst mistakes he made in his earlier life in this town had been the result of his fear of humiliation, through which he lost a friend who was like a brother and the woman he was learning to love,” Hamza reflects. “The war crushed those niceties out of him and showed him staggering visions of brutality that taught him humility. Those thoughts filled him with sorrow, which he thought was the inescapable fate of man.”

The story conveys the sense both that life’s connections are tenuous and that one’s character can draw others into their life. When he stumbles upon the warehouse where he first meets Khalifa, Hamza has low expectations. Yet when Khalifa offers him a place to sleep,

it made Hamza take another look at Khalifa, this generous offer, the coin earlier in the day, all that kindness alongside his irritable manner and sour looks. I like the look of you, he had said. Nassor Biashara had said that to him too. It had happened to Hamza before, that his appearance had won kindnesses for him in unexpected ways. The German officer had said that too, more than once.

We understand that it is not his physical appearance they like, but rather how he moves through the world, unassuming and honest.

Even amid the miseries of colonialism, there is space to share what one has with another. Hamza is tutored by a German officer in the army, yet this relationship brings scorn upon him. In a sign of how much the officer cares for Hamza, he confides that Hamza reminds him of his younger brother. In some of the relationships that develop within the novel, we can see that eventually, accompanied and accompanier blur as both give and receive from the other, perhaps even to the point of no longer “othering” one another.

In this we see the incredible possibility that we are all invited to strive toward: stepping beyond our historical circumstances and the societal differences that separate us to be servants to each other, and by doing this, becoming true leaders. While we can never truly cast aside the forces of history, we can be cognizant of how we acknowledge and respond to them.

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