BookClub, Feb 2022

Review of Admiring Silence, Abdulrazak Gurnah

Whilst the dodgy shoulder may have cramped my note-taking this month, it’s always a sign of a good bookclub when I realise that I haven’t written copious notes because I was too busy hearing and participating in lots of discussion and great comments from all the readers. This was a book that perhaps didn’t give itself up very easily for praise  -  plenty of 2’s and 3’s as well as 4’s in our ratings – but after discussion there was consensus that at least this book was clever enough to keep us talking.

Right from the outset, with that meandering, baffling opening, we are puzzling about the narrator and the style. Is it funny? Is it just sad? Does he actually like his family or not?  We never really get his innermost thoughts ( in fact, we don’t even get his name) but we can slowly calibrate him via his interactions with Emma’s family, and then later on in his re-discovered homeland of Zanzibar. It takes a lot to feel compassion for this guy, which is probably deliberate. The more we scratched at the narrative, the more we recognised that all these hints and half-hearted responses are indeed a deliberate writer’s ploy to make us work, to make us try to decipher the real relationships at the heart of the story. And in doing so, we realise that all of this nebulous story telling is actually the point. It’s pretty hard to define your relationships and your life, when you’re not sure yourself who you are, what happened to your father, how you ended up in a different country, how you’re not sure if you will ever see your homeland and family again.

All of this ‘alienation’ is communicated with compassion, but no sentimentality.

There were some surprisingly brutal details : his reaction to the birth of his daughter is the antithesis of expected parental love; the constant references to sanitation ( or lack of it) and bodily functions; and his compulsion to allow his own story to be full of half-truths and fabricated parts – which Emma tries very much to decipher, at first, but then seems to accept – given that her PhD subject is about the very doubtfulness of narrative. Just one of Gurnah’s many little subtleties.

We hear that his life ‘ is’ Emma, rather than any sense of belonging in England. But when Amelia usurps his position as number one in Emma’s affections, the relationship cools and we are left feeling that he sits outside of the Willoughby clan, tolerated but misunderstood. The fact that he seemed to consider, albeit briefly, taking a new wife as found for him in Zanzibar, is another twist that has us shaking our heads at him – whilst frustrated that he cannot tell the truth, to anyone.

As with the discussion, the details and potential for debate are rich in this book.  If you haven’t read it yet, it is probably worth the struggle. It made us think about many elements of life outside of one’s homeland, about the complicated relationship of a land and its colonial rulers when overcome by new local power, about the ties of family and the notion of home.  It seems an appropriate moment in history for Abdulrazak Gurnah to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, when so many peoples in our world are being forced to uproot and move in search of better lives. 

March 12, 2022 by Books Scissors