As Foreign as a Drop of Oil in Water

In his novel Pilgrim's Way, Abdulrazak Gurnah, two-time Booker Prize nominee and native of Zanzibar, writes about migrants and their foreignness. The book is an angry postcolonial "coming to terms" with society. Review by Jan Valk

photo: British Council
Abdulrazak Gurnah

​​There are different forms of foreignness. There is the foreignness of the newcomer – of one who has yet to familiarize himself with a new environment. And then there is the foreignness of a drop of oil in a pail of water. This is more than a temporary state. It is the true existential form of foreignness: something insoluble.

This kind of foreignness is typical of Abdulrazak Gurnah's protagonists. These are people who are plainly marked by their skin color, foreign in the country they live in. And they will remain foreign, because this is the role that is assigned to them all over again every single day.

Daud, the protagonist of the novel Pilgrim's Way, lives in a small town somewhere in Britain, some time in the seventies. For a long time little is mentioned about his origins.

In the very first lines, however, one learns that he is a "wog". A black. A nigger. That is what "distinguishes" him in the true sense of the word, both with regard to the way he is treated by the people around him and to the strategies he develops for dealing with this constant stereotyping.

Daud has lived in England for nearly five years. After dropping out of the university, he now works as an assistant nurse in a hospital. His most telling character trait is an almost paranoid vigilance. He senses danger everywhere. And he encounters it everywhere.

"Subtle" forms of humiliation

It takes the form of physical assaults, insults, or mere looks, depending entirely on the location: on the street he is in danger of being beaten, while at work more "subtle" forms of humiliation await him.

Yet the most harrowing aspect of his situation is not the actual violence, but rather the fact that by being marked as an outsider, Daud is robbed of his own story. The society he lives in is not interested in his past. It supplies him with a new identity. He is one of many. Even his name is ultimately unimportant. He is a black, an oversexed, uncultured, lazy "wog".

Daud confronts the situation with a mixture of resignation and scathing cynicism. He does not try to combat the myriad of prejudices. Instead, he reacts to the role assigned to him by play-ing it to a radical degree.

Playing the role of the "nigger"

He gives people what they expect from him. He plays the "nigger" – a bitter parody of the role his environment has "written for him".

Daud sees no way of feeling at home in this society. But it is just as inconceivable for him to return to his family in Tanzania. Since dropping out of the university he has not dared to con-tact his parents.

Just when his situation seems utterly hopeless and inescapable, a young Englishwoman named Catherine comes into his life. It is not Daud's first affair with a white woman, but it is the first time that he has met someone who questions his cynical, self-pitying role as a failed "wog".

Catherine probes him. She does not want to hear "stories" from him – she wants to know his story, just as she demands that Daud learn hers.

Characters are slowly taking shape

With a delicate touch, Gurnah lets his characters take shape. Very gradually, characters who previously seemed nothing but reflections of socially-assigned roles become people with unique stories of their own.

Gurnah does not propagate any naïve illusions about the power of love lifting racial barriers. Discrimination and prejudice persist to the last, as does Daud's tendency toward self-pity and cynicism. But that also reflects the true strength of the novel.

Pilgrim's Way does not demonstrate a cure, a resolution. Instead the novel shows that "progress" will not be possible until the radically "foreign elements" are allowed to go on existing in their unique individuality.

It is not enough to surmount a barrier once. Rather, what counts is the willingness to acknowledge this barrier, yet cross it over and over again.

And this border-crossing can only take the form of a dialogue, the willingness to inquire into the stories of people's journeys into foreignness.

Searching for "something unsaid"

Ultimately, Pilgrim's Way is a simple, oft-told tale: a love story, the story of an odd couple. The hero as an outsider who comes close to being destroyed by society.

What makes the novel more than the reflection of simple variations on a postcolonial theme are the people's "little stories" that are told here. Gurnah himself described his motivation for writing as the search for something "unsaid, something that has never been heard before".

And that is what one finds in this novel: human stories that are rarely heard and rarely written down in so poignant a fashion.

Jan Valk

© 2004

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948. He left Tanzania at the age of twenty and has since lived in England, where he has taught African and Caribbean literature at the Uni-versity of Kent in Canterbury since 1985.

Beginning in 1987 Gurnah has published six novels and has twice been nominated for the Booker Prize. His other novels include Memory of Departure (Cape, 1987), Dottie (Cape, 1990), Paradise (Hamish Hamilton, 1994), Admiring Silence (Hamish Hamilton, 1996), and By the Sea (Bloomsbury, 2001).