The ebb and flow of human migration is the theme that resounds through Abdulrazak Gurnah's latest novel, "By the Sea." The author, who lives in England, was born on the island of Zanzibar off the coast of east Africa, a history he shares with this novel's protagonists, two men of different generations and temperaments.
The first voice we hear belongs to Saleh Omar, once a prosperous furniture dealer, who has come to England as an asylum-seeker. Already in his 60s, Saleh strikes the immigration officer as too old to make a fresh start. But once we have heard his story, we understand why he feels that his previous life is over and that he must begin a new one, however modest.
Although Saleh speaks fluent English, on arriving in England, he pretends not to, foolishly following the advice of the man who sold him his airline ticket. (When he later decides to abandon this clearly unhelpful pretense, he begins to suspect the ticket-seller's "canniness" might have had "something to do with the paranoia of the powerless." Indeed, so well-versed in English literature is Saleh that he's quite disappointed when Rachel Howard, a warm-hearted Englishwoman who works for an organization assisting asylum-seekers, fails to catch his allusion to Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" in his explanation for not initially divulging his familiarity with English to her: "I preferred not to."
She, meanwhile, has been in touch with a London professor, an "expert" in Saleh's "area," who she hopes will be able to communicate with him. This expert is the poet and professor Latif Mahmud, a generation younger than Saleh but also originally from Zanzibar. And, although Saleh has no need of a translator, he and his fellow countryman, as it turns out, have much to communicate--to each other. Both men are Muslims, both are black, both lived in the same town, and both were acquainted with a certain Persian trader with a rare ability to win friends, influence people and leave trouble in his wake.
As Saleh and Latif exchange personal histories, we witness the unfolding of a sad and complicated story. From Latif's perspective, it's the story of how his family was taken advantage of by a heartless furniture dealer--none other than Saleh. But from Saleh's account, the same events appear in a different light, and it seems that whatever wrongs he may have done Latif's family were more than matched by the devastating losses he suffered as a result of their intransigence and vengefulness. That the same story looks entirely different, depending on whose perspective it's told from, is a familiar enough concept: the "Rashomon" effect, so to speak. But what is particularly fascinating and very moving about Gurnah's handling of this situation is that in telling their own stories--and, even more important, in listening to each other--these two men, after their initial shock and uneasiness, manage to piece together a more complete and accurate version of what happened, one that enables them to get beyond recrimination to a higher plane of compassionate understanding.
This complicated tale of two families is itself enmeshed in the larger fabric of history: the history of Zanzibar, of the centuries-old trade routes and of the Africans, Indians, Arabs, Persians and Europeans who left their imprints there. Reaching out beyond Zanzibar, the novel also invites us to consider broader currents of world history, most particularly those forces that led to massive human migration, like the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Spain (part of Rachel Howard's family history). In richly textured detail and with considerable finesse, Gurnah subtly illustrates how the pattern of quarrels between individuals and feuds between families is repeated on a larger scale in the conflicts of human history: a long, twisted chain of recrimination and strife.
To be an exile, an emigre, a refugee is to experience the overwhelming weight of circumstances and to struggle to maintain a certain sense of one's selfhood. "Can I ever speak of itself without making itself heroic, without making itself seem hemmed in, arguing against an unarguable, rancouring with an implacable?" wonders Saleh. But he, Latif and some of the other characters in this novel achieve a kind of humanity and wisdom that may be better than heroism.