The Guardian view on the Nobel prize in literature: beauty out of universal loss

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<span>Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

If one of the roles of the Nobel prize for literature is to shine a light on someone who has been less visible than they warrant, then that role was fulfilled this year in the announcement of Abdulrazak Gurnah as winner. Unlike previous recipients living in Britain (Kazuo Ishiguro, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing and on back to Rudyard Kipling), he is not a household name. He could, as he said after the announcement, do with more readers; his publisher concurred. She also bemoaned the fact that he “is one of the greatest living African writers, and no one has ever taken any notice of him”, but with this he did not agree: “I didn’t think I was ignored.”

There is a gulf, here, that has to do with who is doing the looking, and what counts as officially being noticed. There is also a point of definition: calling Gurnah an African writer, while seeming to broaden horizons, in fact narrows and distances what he is doing. Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, and left when he was 18, escaping revolution for what he hoped were calmer waters but turned out to be Enoch Powell’s predictions of rivers of blood. He has lived in Britain ever since.

He has said he began writing to make sense, to himself, of the shock – of racism, rejection, poverty and loneliness – and his 10 novels return to it again and again. “I have found myself leaning heavily on this pain,” begins 1996’s Admiring Silence. His work therefore exists because of Britain as well as Zanzibar; it consists of both, and of being wholly neither. It arrives out of a deep knowledge of English literature (Gurnah is professor emeritus of literature at the University of Kent), but is also marinated in Kiswahili, his first language, and the rhythms and stories of Islam.

In fact, it is striking just how many of the UK’s 13 Nobel-winning writers were born elsewhere, from Kipling (India) to VS Naipaul (Trinidad and Tobago); TS Eliot (the US) to Lessing (Iran) and Ishiguro (Japan). And how that simply reflects the country. By 2019 (before Covid, when nearly a million foreign-born residents left), 14% of the UK’s population was born abroad.

Striking, too, how many of those countries were once part of the British empire. Gurnah has spoken of how much of the world is still processing the wounds that colonialism inflicted, especially the experience of “losing your place in the world” – where place is not just geographical, but also belonging, status and culture. The losses of empire (or loss of empire, from the British point of view) have now been joined by unprecedented levels of displacement and migration due to war, food insecurity, economic inequality and repressive politics. (The anxiety about immigration that fuels nationalist policies in places such as Britain can also be understood as an anxiety of displacement, of losing one’s home.)

Gurnah’s work, which spotlights those who, in the words of the Ethiopian-American novelist Maaza Mengiste, “might not have made it into the archives … shopkeepers, homemakers … students and refugees”, could not, in this sense, be more British. But, more importantly, it could not be more universal.

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