Review by Walter Cummins
Although The Last Gift (2011) is not 2021 Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah’s most acclaimed novel—the Booker Prize short-listed Paradise is—it illustrates his many strengths as a fiction writer, especially his ability to delve into a complex set of characters and his sense of timing for revealing essential information about their pasts. While those details come as initial surprises, they possess an inevitability that develops the depth of each character and the complexity of the human relationships.
A passage early in the novel—an authorial comment when Jamal, the son of Abbas and Maryam, thinks he has found a contradiction in his mother’s memories of her past—reveals the basis of Gurnah’s method for the revelation of characters’ pasts:
He [Jamal] did not know that stories do not stand still, that they change with new recollections and rearrange themselves subtly with every addition, and what seem like contradictions may be unavoidable revisions of what might have happened.
Gurnah also possesses a concern for origins and their significance in the shaping of human lives. His own birth in Zanzibar and expatriation to England informs the characters he creates—in this novel Abbas—and the impact of past on present. But origin is more than geographic.
The central characters are a family of four, both parents having mysterious pasts. Abbas deliberately does not reveal his completely until shortly before he dies—where in Africa he came from, what he did during his years on ships’ crews, the guilty reason for his flight, all his life before he took the much younger Maryam for marriage in England. At that time, she was just seventeen, abandoned as an infant, living in a foster home in the city of Exeter, eager to escape into a new life, running off with Abbas without telling her foster family.
Their two children are Jamal, studying for a doctorate focused on immigrants in Europe, and Hanna, who insists on calling herself Anna. She is starting her career as a teacher, newly relocating to follow her academic boyfriend, Nick, the son of an affluent family she believes does not accept her because of her background.
Their lives of all seem to exist in a form of suspension because of Abbas’ secret, Maryam not really knowing who her husband is, Jamal and Hanna their father. Abbas himself, in hiding essential facts of his past, can only lead a limited present.
Hanna used to say to Jamal that they were a strange family, an odd family. Their mother was an abandoned baby who had not idea of her real parents, and their father never spoke about his.
Early on, when she left home, Hanna raged “about the secrecy and their suppressed and dissembling lives,” until she took the name Anna and immersed herself in Britishness. Jamal cannot fully accept that Britain is his home, turning his uncertainties and contemplations about the mysteries of his father into a source of study as he writes a dissertation on migration movements in Europe.
For Abbas, his life’s ending is a return to his beginning. In the opening scene of the novel, he comes home for a day at work, feeling ill on the bus and collapsing just inside the front door of his house. But the first sentence of the novel reveals the outlines of a central truth about this as- yet unnamed man: “One day, long before the troubles, he slipped away without saying a word to anyone and never went back.” Then the collapse forty-three years later. It initiates another kind of slipping away, the steps that will lead to his death. The sentence establishes a central mystery that will hang over much of the story until is revealed in part and finally fully. Ironically, as Abbas begins the process of leaving the life so constrained by the origins he struggled to hide, he ends up revealing the complete details of that origin, speaking openly into a recording device.
The exposure of Abbas’ story is just one culmination of the novel. Maryam’s origins are still hidden, not deliberately as her husband’s, but because they are seemingly unknown. As Abbas returns to Zanzibar in his memories, she literally returns to Exeter and the foster parents, Ferooz and Vijay, she fled to be with Abbas, also without saying a word. There she learns the story of her birth, the reason for her abandonment, and her birth mother’s identity.
The novel ends with Hanna and Jamal, now that they finally know, accepting where they came from and who they are, their concluding exchange a discussion of visiting Zanzibar and seeing where the boy who became their father shelled groundnuts.
The Last Gift helps explain by Gurnah was awarded to Nobel Prize, an inevitable question when the prize goes to a writer who is not widely recognized—why Gurnah of so many possibilities? This novel addresses issues that are likely to become even more prevalent in the future as many more people become uprooted from the places of their origins and end up leading their lives in new lands, questioning roots and identities. More and more, Nobel awards in fields like literature reflect a political context. The author chosen, of course, should be a strong writer, and Gurnah is that.