What aspects of Abdulrazak Gurnah's novel Paradise make it a worthy contender for a literature award?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Reasons why Abdulrazak Gurnah's Paradise is worthy of England's Booker Prize concern the fact that it is rich in history, culture, and vivid imagery.

Paradise is set during Germany's colonization of both South West and East Africa in the late 1800s, a colonial empire that was ended by Germany's defeat in World War I. Prior to WW I, Germany owned Tanganyika, what is now Rwanda and Burundi, what is now Kenya, what is now Mozambique, as well as many other territories (Oxford Bibliographies, "German Colonial Rule"). Author Gurnah does a sublime job of capturing the hardships suffered under colonialism.

One aspect of East African culture Gurnah sublimely captures concerns life as a merchant. He vividly describes caravan life as protagonist and debt-slave Yusuf marches along the merchant road with fellow debt-slave Khalil and their merchant owner Aziz. In particular, he vividly captures what it was like for a merchant to work in this time period an culture. The narrator describes merchant Aziz as traveling from "ocean to the mountains, to the lakes and forests, and across the dry plains and the bare rocky hills of the interior," accompanied by musicians playing instruments and porters carrying goods and provisions (p. 3).

Storytelling was also a significant part of both East African culture and merchant culture. The life of a merchant was a tedious and even dangerous life; porters played games and told stories to keep each other entertained. Storytelling is particularly captured when Gurnah narrates Khalil telling a story about Yusuf that ties in with Islamic mythology, as we see in the following narration:

So by the time Ma Ajuza came to hear the story, the game had turned into a carnage and slaughter out of which Yusuf had stepped triumphant, while his clown pranced beside him singing his praise-songs. Yusuf the Magnificent, blessed of God, the new Dhul Qurnain, slayer of Gog and Magog! (p. 41)

Mythology is also a significant cultural aspect that Gurnah brilliantly weaves throughout the book. The myth of Gog and Magog is an underlying theme throughout the book. Gog and Magog is a legend referred to in both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur'an. Gog is prince over the land of Magog and is required by God to lay siege against Israel. In Ezekiel 38:16, Gog's army is described as invading Israel "like a cloud covering the earth" (Encyclopaedia of Britannica, "Gog and Magog: Religion and Mythology"). However, Gog is also defeated by God, who then restores his covenant with his people of Israel ("Gog and Magog"). In Paradise, Gog symbolizes the German forces colonizing East Africa, while Magog is East Africa. Plus, references to the myth foreshadows Germany's defeat in WW I. Since Gog symbolizes the Germans and Magog symbolizes East Africa it is neither inappropriate nor unexpected when Khalil refers to a German officer in whispers in Yusuf's ear as "Gog and Magog" (p. 246). The German officer was overlooking askaris, local soldiers who served under European colonial powers, round up prisoners.

While Gurnah's language is praised as being rich and beautiful, even poetic, critics also note that there are "a few clumsy passages in the writing, as if the author's ear had suddenly let him down," and these passages seem incongruous with his otherwise poetic and vivid language (Mason, "Book Review/Of Earthly Delights: 'Paradise'"). However, though one might raise that as a criticism to question the merit of the Booker Prize, all in all, the book definitely seems very worthy.

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