Blasts from the Past: By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah (2001)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea is a slim novel but it made quite an impression on me, perhaps because there was a good deal of nastiness in the tabloid press about asylum seekers when I first read it. Hardly uncommon, sadly. If anything, it’s even worse now. Gurnah left his native Zanzibar a year after a violent coup, arriving to study in the UK on the eve of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Written in delicately evocative prose, By the Sea is about the complex relationship between two men from Zanzibar, each from opposing sides.

Saleh Omar is an elderly asylum seeker from the east coast of Africa. Told not to reveal his ability to speak English by the man who sold him his ticket, Saleh blurts out a sentence to his kindly refugee worker after weeks of silence when she tells him she’s found an interpreter. When he learns the proposed interpreter is Latif Mahmud, Saleh realises that they are already bound together by an intricate series of events which brought about the downfall of Latif’s family and the imprisonment of Saleh.

Gurnah’s novel seemed to me to capture the loneliness of exile, the longing for a home to which no return can be made. It did what the best fiction does – take an experience entirely foreign to the reader and makes it vividly felt. I was delighted when Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2021. No one could have deserved it more.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

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12 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah (2001)”

  1. I’m glad you reviewed this. My library has it available as a book group set but I didn’t know anything about it. It sounds like it would be a good one for us in the future.

  2. Sounds an excellent and certainly very relevant read. The theme of the loss of a home and space of safety especially. Will keep an eye out for it.

  3. That cover image is so familiar, I thought I had read it years ago top. However, the story isn’t ringing any bells, so perhaps not. It sounds lovely though, definitely one I would enjoy. It reminds me slightly (there are various differences) of Farewell My Orange which I read about four years ago.

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