East African novelist Gurnah (Paradise, 1994, etc.) luminously weaves together themes of alienation, treachery, and despair, in a story about two political exiles, in a drab English seaside town, whoat last find forgiveness and understanding.
When aging Saleh Omar, a Zanzibar native, arrives in England seeking asylum, he claims not to speak English. He also calls himself Rajab Shaaban, a name he has borrowed for reasons that soon become clear. As Omar settles into a small apartment provided by immigration authorities, he spends his days checking out the local furniture stores and recalling the past. He recalls the prosperous furniture shop he ran, the loan he secured for Hussein, a seafaring merchant from Bahrain, that would cause him and the story's other protagonist so much trouble. Meanwhile, poet and professor Latif Mahmud, also from Zanzibar, having been alerted by the authorities that a fellow Zanzibari might need help with translation, looks back at his own past. As order broke down in Zanzibar after it gained independence from Britain, Latif accepted a scholarship to study in the former East Germany, escaping soon after to Britain. He still holds Omar responsible for his family’s decline: his mother took lovers, his father became an alcoholic, and their house was repossessed. When the two men finally remeet, the embittered Latif accuses Omar not only of stealing his father’s name, Rajab Shabaan, but his property. Omar then relates how he honorably inherited the Shabaan property only to lose it; how, in the political turmoil, he was imprisoned on false charges by Latif’s family; how he belatedly learned of the death of his wife and only child; and how he managed to escape further persecution by fleeing under an assumed name. With these confessions, both men find a satisfying cloture with hints of fuller lives to come.
An impressively quiet book that addresses important themes with intelligence and empathy.