Paradise (HUM415)

Even now, we tend to think of Africa as monolithic and to speak of Africans collectively as if they were not incredibly diverse in cultural, racial, and ethnic terms. One of the projects of a writer such as Abdulrazak Gurnah is to challenge these misconceptions by reconstructing the continent’s “geographical imaginary.” Part of that process includes representing the multiplicity of figures and groups populating East and Central Africa, a demographic reality Gurnah dramatizes by narrating a crucial period in world history: the consolidation of colonial power in Africa. Some decades after the notorious Berlin Conference, this stage of colonization witnessed a rapidly shifting social terrain– including the end of the “Great Caravans”.

We could take the title of Gurnah’s novel ironically, given the absence of any true paradise in its diegesis. If Seyyid Aziz’s garden is paradisiacal it is not paradise, particularly given the presence of his diseased and immoral first wife and the slavish gardener Mzee Hamdani. In a sense this absence of paradise (“visions of lost wholeness”) is part of a larger commentary on African history from the perspective of a postcolonial moment. It would be all too easy to locate all of Africa’s challenges and problems with European colonization. In fact, colonialism was catastrophic, disrupting the social fabric of various localities and pitting Africans against one another in a classic “divide and rule” tactic. On the other hand, Africans (who arguably did not see themselves as such until the 20th century) were active and engaged participants in a history reaching back millennia, from the encroachment of Nilotic people into the Sudan and beyond to the migration of Bantu-speaking people from what is now Cameroon. Political groupings ranged from clan affiliations to empires (note: not imperialism). Traders and explorers from within and without (the Arabian Peninsula and India, for example) complicated such social configurations and altered the physical environment (introducing new flora and fauna, for instance: the banana is Asian in origin, while cacao comes from the interior of America). Africa, then, has been part of a world-system reaching across the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean long before the first Portuguese ships sailed down the West African coast.

One way to approach Gurnah’s novel is as a kind of literary declaration of sovereignty. According to Paradise Africans are not simply the victims of colonial greed and aggression (though, again, the violence of European imperialism is indisputable). Rather they are and have been the makers of their own histories (even if, as with all of humanity, “they do not make it as they please.”).* One of the ways that Gurnah illustrates this truth concerns the matter of subjection, of the social antagonisms and hierarchies that elevate some at the expense of others. Yusuf’s status as a kind of indentured servant/ debt collateral is part of a circuit of exchange that precedes colonization. And if Aziz refuses to traffic in slaves for moral reasons, other traders are not so fastidious.

The presence of South Asians, North Africans, and “savages” (“the dusty warrior people who herded cattle and drank the blood of their animals”) establishes a human geography of contrasting and intersecting lifeways and traditions. Yet even the most disparate polities are linked by trade. Think about the claims made by different characters about the significance of this form of economic activity. Think about debt, dearth, and surplus. Reflect on ownership, labor, and exchange.  Trade promotes cross-cultural encounter. Ideas, germs, and songs are part of the freight carried by wandering traders. Social networks are established (though as we see in the novel such networks may begin to fray or unravel altogether). The Germans, however, and Europeans in general, threaten this cultural-commercial ecology because their insatiable appetites can never be appeased: “They want the whole world.”

Finally, two of the indispensable questions that must be asked about Paradise are 1) how does the novel end? and 2) what does that ending mean?

*“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”