Where is paradise?
The Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah (Zanzibar, 1948, now living in the United Kingdom) wrote a book with the title Paradise. This book was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize. I do not know if Abdulrazak has reached the gates of paradise, I do not even know if Yusuf, the protagonist, has reached paradise, but I am sure he tried to find it.
We meet Yusuf when he is twelve years old. He lives upcountry with his family, his father runs a small hotel in the town alongside a railwayline. The story brings us back over a hundred years, during the days before the Great War that also reached East Africa. The father of Yusuf has dealings with uncle Aziz, who takes the boy with him to his house at the coast. Aziz is a trader who has a shop and he organizes safari’s to the interior to trade, even beyond the Great Lakes.
Yusuf thinks Aziz is his uncle, but Khalik, another boy who works at the shop is of the opinion that Yusuf has been traded for the debt his father had with ‘uncle’ Aziz. Yusuf will work for many years for Aziz and the debt of his father will disappear in the end. It is just a form of slavery. Just leave your heart here (baga moyo).
First Yusuf learns the trade in the shop next to the house of Aziz. A next step is his time with Hamed Suleiman, a trader upcountry, near Kilimanjoro. Another step in his life is travelling with a safari to the interior to trade, to learn new places and people. Later he travels with Aziz to make an even further journey.
All the time Yusuf chases a happy place, a paradise. He has been forced to leave his family. He is on his own. At times he thinks he has been in paradise, for instance when he works in the beautiful garden of Aziz and his wife. The word ‘paradise’ means ‘garden’ so he gets near. But he is still on his own. He does not belong. He no longer belongs to his family. He does not belong to the trader near the mountain. He does not belong to Aziz.
Some people like Yusuf for his beautiful appearance, but all to no avail. It does not help him in life. It even at times portends danger, for instance in his contacts with the wife of his master Aziz. Here the story is linked to the Joseph story in the bible and the quran.
Gurnah has written a beautiful book, an attempt to reach paradise. The book itself is beautiful, but it describes a situation far away from paradise. The loneliness of the boy (and later man) is clear, but he still tries to make the most of his life. At the very end of the book he makes another attempt to belong.
Abdulrazak Gurnah – Paradise – 1994