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By the Sea (thoughts)

November 18, 2010

If you watched my Library Loot vlog on Monday, you already know how this post is going to go. I loved By the Sea, and I can’t wait to read more of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s work! In fact, I’m already mentally pouting that my library only carries one other of his titles. Why? Because Gurnah’s prose is so tight and perfectly achieves what it needs to, I can just sit back in breathless admiration as it continues to unfold. Also, because he managed to combine page-turning narrative tension and memorable characters with honest examinations of race and refugees and the legacies of colonialism. Not to mention gender and sex and power and governmental legitimacy and memories and personal histories and identity…oh, this book was so rich! Yesterday, I was typing out notable passages so I could return it to the library, and I kept thinking to myself “Maybe I should just read it again from the beginning.” But instead, I shall content myself with talking far too much to all of y’all!

By the Sea opens with our narrator, a man in his 60s, on a flight from Zanzibar to the UK, where he is planning on claiming refugee status (which, due to a whim of international politics, is currently easy to claim for Zanzibar citizens). From there, the book consists of bits about his present-life in the UK and flashbacks to his past. There’s also another narrator, eventually; while their voices don’t sound very different (which, if you recall, I’m complained about before), in this case I believe that was a deliberate choice by Gurnah. Both men are originally from Zanzibar, and both are deliberately precise in their language, but I could still tell who was narrating by the nostalgia that was stronger in the older man’s tone. That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot, since I think it’s best for the narrator to be able to unfold it on his own.

While the book includes a variety of difficult ‘issues’, it doesn’t feel heavy or emotionally draining. I never had any dread about picking it back up; on the contrary, I couldn’t wait to learn more about the narrators’ pasts!  Keep in mind that the novel itself doesn’t focus on the political things I’m about to discuss: the book is a retelling of two men’s lives, of the misunderstandings and triumphs and tragedies they experience, of their struggle to reinvent themselves. That’s what made me love this so much: how real the characters felt (even the minor ones), and how much I cared about their lives. If you’re only interested in hearing about the book, you can pretend that the post ends here, with my highest recommendation to give By the Sea a go. :)

With all caveats in place then, I’d like to share some ‘issue’ passages (don’t worry: no spoilers included) that I found particularly moving.  Of course, I was captured by the glimpses of gender and sex in Zanzibar culture…as the older narrator says early on:

We did tend to marry early in those days. I don’t know what happened in girls’ schools and wish now that I did. Perhaps the girls would have just disappeared from school, there one day gone the next, and everyone would have guessed they had been married. Married off, married by, done to. I try to imagine what that would have felt like. I imagine myself a woman, feeble with unuttered justification, unutterable. I imagine myself defeated.

In traditional Zanzibar society, once girls hit the threshold of womanhood, they became sequestered. I’m going to quote again:

But that is what used to happen to women. At a certain age they disappeared into the house, and then you forgot what they looked like, you forgot they existed, until they reappeared years later as brides and mothers.

There are all sorts of results from this rigid separation of the genders, but this is primarily a book about boys and men. So while I appreciated Gurnah’s nod to the struggles of women, what really jumped out at me was this passage, in which the younger narrator is remembering what happened to his older brother, who was a very attractive teenager:

They never left Hassan alone after that, the plunderers of flesh. There was nothing gay in what they did or sought to do. They coveted his grace and his effortless, supple beauty, and muttered to him as he strolled by, offering him money and gifts and transparent predatory smiles. A man gave me a letter to take home to him, a page out of a school notebook, folded over roughly like a page of accounts or a shopping list. I tried to read it when I got home but it was written in English and I could make no sense of it. Hassan read it and then tore it into tiny shreds which he put in an old envelope that he put in his pocket to throw away somewhere far away. They never left him alone, the looks, the comments, the casual touch, all were suggestive, something between a cruel game and a calculated stalking exercise. And Hassan suffered. The brashness and the chatter disappeared as now he learnt to avert his face from these callous acts of love, from seductive flourishes that promised only pain.

If I had edited out Hassan’s name, doesn’t that sound like what girls experience after puberty?! Cat calling, anyone? I have had two separate uncomfortable experiences in cafes within the last two months, in which men in their 50s buttonholed me into conversations where they said mildly inappropriate things (oddly enough, both also used their iPhones as ways to broach these inappropriate topics). In both instances, despite all of my body language and verbal attempts at politely ending things (it has to be polite, because you never know what will happen if you anger a stranger), I ended up having to leave the cafe and come home. Here’s the thing: being treated like a walking vagina wears one down. Somehow, the ickiness of the sentiments being expressed rubs off on me, so that I end up feeling like I need a shower. It outrages me that I can’t sit in a cafe, read my book, enjoy my beverage, and be able to glance up from time to time without fear that a man might take my glance as an invitation to sit next to me and make inuendo-laden remarks. But at the same time, a tiny little voice inside wonders if I’m simply overreacting, being too sensitive to it all. So coming across this passage just made my heart sing; it affirmed the experiences of myself and many of my friends, and I bless Gurnah for including it. While this particular extract refers to Hassan, later he talks about men catcalling women in full burkhas walking down the street, only to discover that they’ve catcalled their own daughters. How awful is that?

From the frying pan and into the fire! Shall we talk about race next? Before this passage, the younger of the two narrators has been called a ‘blackamoor’ on the street. Curious about the word’s origin, and being a literature professor, he decides to to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Of course I knew about the construction of black as other, as wicked, as beast, as some evil dark place of the innermost being of even the most skinless civilised European, but I had not expected to see so much black black black on a page like that. Stumbling on it so unprepared was a bigger shock than being called you gwinning blackamoor by a man who looked like a disgruntled, dated movie persona. It made me feel hated, suddenly weak with a kind of terror at such associations. This is the house I live in, I thought, a language which barks and scorns me behind every third corner.

Isn’t the language powerful? Gurnah’s writing is just so smooth and muscular…like a big cat almost. I think what struck me most about this is that the man turns to the OED, a symbol of civilisation, almost as a defensive response to the uncouth man on the street, and instead receives a (mental) punch in the gut. I have no idea what it’s like to be anything other than white, but when I hear men calling each other “girls” as an insult (as in, “you throw like a girl” or “stop being such a girl” “ladies, ladies” to two men), I have the same kind of reaction. Not to bring this all back to gender; I suppose Gurnah does such an incredible job of capturing how those moments of being discriminated against feel like that I couldn’t help but relate to them.

I’ve written and erased about three paragraphs on colonialism now, its historical evils and the way that they reverberate through the modern day. But at the end of the day, I think Gurnah allows his readers to make up their own minds, so I’ll just leave you with two more passages that really struck home for me.

I think we also secretly admired the British, for their audacity in being there, such a long way from home, calling the shots with such an appearance of assurance, and for knowing so much about how to do the things that mattered: curing diseases, flying aeroplanes, making movies. Perhaps admired is too uncomplicated a way of describing what I think we felt, for it was closer to conceding to their command over our material lives, conceding in the mind as well as in the concrete, succumbing to their blazing self-assurance. In their books I read unflattering accounts of my history, and because they were unflattering, they seemed truer than the stories we told ourselves. I read about the diseases that tormented us, about the future that lay before us, about the world we lived in and our place in it. It was as if they had remade us, and in ways that we no longer had any recourse but to accept, so complete and well-fitting was the story they told about us. I don’t suppose the story was told cynically, because I think they believed it too. It was how they understood us and they understood themselves, and there was little in the overwhelming reality we lived with that allowed us to argue, not while the story had novelty and went unchallenged.

It was not that my countrymen were incapable of seeing the beauty of these things. I arranged the most beautiful of them as exhibits in the store, and people came in to look at them and admire. But they would not, could not, pay the prices I was asking for them. They did not have the same obsessive need of them that my European customers had-to acquire the world’s beautiful things so they could take them home and possess them as tokens of their cultivation and open-mindedness, as trophies of their worldliness and their conquest of multitudinous parched savannahs.

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38 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2010 6:51 am

    Goodness, this just sounds absolutely incredible. It’s the first time I’ve heard the title or even of the author but I can’t imagine why that is.

    • November 19, 2010 8:01 am

      I hadn’t heard of him until Amy reviewed one of his novels! He’s been on the longlist for the Booker a couple of times too…it’s kind of weird. ;)

  2. November 18, 2010 11:11 am

    This sounds absolutely incredible. I’ve never heard of this author, but everything from the premise to the writing sounds like something I must read… Here’s hoping the Nashville public library has at least one of his books!

    • November 19, 2010 8:01 am

      I hope your library has some of his stuff too! :)

  3. November 18, 2010 11:23 am

    No. You’re not being too sensitive. As someone who writes about women, I believe that if we don’t try to get respect in the little ways, we’ll be more at risk for losing it in the wider ones.

  4. November 18, 2010 11:30 am

    I’d never heard of this author but the book sounds amazing! Your reviews always manage to entice me… how do you do that??

  5. November 18, 2010 1:48 pm

    Oof, I so relate to the passages you pulled about sexual objectification and interpellation re: negative opinions about the group one belongs to. It sounds like Gurnah’s ideas and prose are both worth checking out – thanks for the recommendation, Eva.

    • November 19, 2010 8:04 am

      Aren’t those passages so powerful? I’d love to see you post about him, so I hope try him out sooner rather than later. :)

  6. November 18, 2010 2:15 pm

    In my last self-defense class, we spent almost as much time talking about making sure no means no as we did practicing palm strikes or kicks; women are often socialized, by being patronized, to question their own behavior. A rejection ought to be confident and final; no negotiation.

    This author sounds marvelous; and what an accomplishment, to be able to write two similar voices that are nonetheless distinct. Fantastic.

    • November 19, 2010 8:07 am

      I took a 4-hour women’s self defense class, and we had to practice yelling/screaming at the top of our lungs, because we’re so programmed to not to that. It was really hard for me at first!

      My problem is how to reject someone and still be polite, especially when they’re not explicitly asking for my number. In the latter case, he was a regular at a cafe right by my house, and it was only my second visit, so I didn’t want to alienate the cafe workers too. Typing that out makes it sound extra silly, doesn’t it?

  7. November 18, 2010 4:20 pm

    This book sounds really rich.

  8. November 18, 2010 7:08 pm

    Eva, there are some reviews that make me put a book on hold at the library after the first paragraph, maybe after the first few paragraphs, or at the end of the review. You had me at the first line! By the Sea and another of Gurnah’s books are on hold. Look forward to reading them.

    • November 18, 2010 7:15 pm

      Let me make that the second line… if we actually go by the first line then that is a little weird. The first line when you start talking about the book, not the first line about your Library Loot, haha.

    • November 19, 2010 8:09 am

      Oh yay! I can’t wait to see what you think of it. :) Which other one did you put on hold? My library also has Desertion.

  9. November 18, 2010 8:09 pm

    Eva – I had added this to my library list when I saw your vlog. Now I have moved it to the top of the pile. Thanks for your wonderful review.

    • November 19, 2010 8:10 am

      I hope you love it as much as I did!

  10. November 18, 2010 8:33 pm

    Wow, I’d never heard of this book or author before your Library Loot vlog, and now here I am adding it to my TBR list. You’re very convincing!

  11. November 19, 2010 1:13 am

    Wonderful review, Eva! ‘Highest Recommendation’ by you is really something! I am adding it to my ‘TBR’ list :)

    That passage about Hassan felt quite real and scary. It is tough that young men and women have to negotiate such tricky situations. Your comment “later he talks about men catcalling women in full burkhas walking down the street, only to discover that they’ve catcalled their own daughters. How awful is that?” made me remember a scene from a movie I watched a few days back called ‘Stromboli’ (it had Ingrid Bergman in a leading role and it was directed by Roberto Rossellini). In the movie a fisherman marries a sophisticated woman called Karin because her circumstances are not good and takes her to his island. Karin is a liberal, but she finds the people of the island very conservative. Once, in the evening, she goes to the local tailor’s home to get her dress stiched. She then hears a group of men singing songs from outside the house and Karin listens to them with glee. Karin’s husband walks by and the he asks one of the singing men what the fuss was about. They say that there is a new blonde in the local prostitute’s house. The husband looks eagerly into the house and to his shock discovers that it is his own wife. Though Karin isn’t aware of the other facet of the tailor, her husband scolds her and brings her home. The husband doesn’t have a problem looking into the prostitute’s home, but he has a problem when he finds his wife there, though her reason for being there is innocent.

    I couldn’t believe it when I read in your post on what happened
    in the cafe. What is happening to 50-year old men these days? (And if it is of any help, I have to add that you were not overreacting. Why don’t people get the message, when they are asked to leave one alone?)

    I liked very much your comment “I think what struck me most about this is that the man turns to the OED, a symbol of civilisation, almost as a defensive response to the uncouth man on the street, and instead receives a (mental) punch in the gut.” So powerfully put.

    I also liked very much the passage that you have quoted on the British. It is probably what many people from countries which were formerly British colonies think. It is beautifully written!

    Thanks for the wonderful review, Eva! I will try to get this beautiful book soon!

    • November 19, 2010 8:22 am

      An Ingrid Bergman film I haven’t seen? I need to put it on reserve at the library! The scene you describe sounds all too typical of the good girl/bad girl rigid divide in so many societies. :(

      Also, you’d think having a book open in front of your face would protect you from random people striking up conversations in public, wouldn’t you?! lol Usually it does, but I have a bit of a history with being hit on by men in their 50s/60s: I have no idea what it is about me that makes that happen.

      Thanks for all the compliments on my post! :D

      • November 19, 2010 10:39 am

        It is an Italian movie and was made when Ingrid Bergman was on a sabbatical from Hollywood for a few years. Hope you get to see it and like it. Would love to hear your thoughts on it :)

        Yes, having a book open in front of our face should be enough. Sad that some people don’t get the message.

  12. November 19, 2010 7:27 am

    Oh wow, I think you just caused a run on this book by book bloggers everywhere! :) I hope my library has a copy. I really like that Gurnah comments on gender discrimination, and includes male experiences. And that one character decides to make use of the OED!

    I hate these sleezy chat-ups, but I have no problems being rude to these men. Usually this happens on the train and there’s other people and I don’t feel threatened but simply furious. It’s horrible that they make you feel like you have to leave!

    • November 19, 2010 8:24 am

      I hope your library has a copy too! I forgot to mention it in my post, but I read another book earlier this year, The Consequences of Love (written by a Eritrean who has lived in Saudi Arabia and set in Saudi), that also looked at male youth being sexually harassed by older men in a rigidly gender divided society.

      I think part of my problem re: being rude is also that I was raised to respect/humour my elders. Since these men are in their 50s/60s, I feel extra-obligated to be polite to them. But I need to learn to assert myself more!

      • November 19, 2010 9:07 am

        Score, my library actually has a copy of this and lots of his other works! Thanks for letting me know about The Consequences of Love, I thought that I don’t read about male perspectives on the gender divide enough, especially since appearently masculinity is in “crisis” (Fight Club ;) ).

        It’s sometimes difficult to overcome being raised well :) But the way I see it, these men don’t deserve my respect and if they don’t leave me alone when I ask them to politely, then it’s time to get my point across in a way that they get. And they probably confuse polite behaviour with submission or acquiesce. Hope you can make them leave next time! :)

  13. November 19, 2010 7:57 am

    Wow. Sounds fantastic. I obviously need to find this book! Certainly some beautiful and insightful passages and lots of great issues discussed. And no – you are NOT overreacting to those icky old men and their comments. Makes me awful angry as well!

    • November 19, 2010 8:25 am

      Thanks Amy! My friends and family actually find it hilarious how often I’m chatted up by sketchy old men. I mean, I guess it’s kind of funny, but it doesn’t *feel* funny while it’s happening, you know?

      • November 19, 2010 8:20 pm

        Ugh. I don’t think it’s funny at all Eva :P I’m sorry!

  14. November 20, 2010 7:15 am

    Sounds so wonderful! And I’m with Amy that that is NOT funny when icky men try to pick up on you…

  15. November 20, 2010 10:49 pm

    :O Want…now….

    • November 22, 2010 11:49 pm

      I’d love to see your thoughts on it Chris!

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