Displaced persons



What framework can grasp a sea, country, person, any story? By the Sea, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s sparklingly beautiful new novel, is narrated by Saleh Omar and Latif Mahmud, both refugees from Zanzibar living in England. As each tells his tale, we learn that their pasts are intensely intertwined, and we come to see how various structures (maps, laws, languages, manners, religion) contain and order events and experience in their lives inadequately.

A tangled blend of personal and political ravages brings these two characters to England, seeking asylum. On the one hand, it is the passion, greed, deceit and seduction that takes place within a small village — on the other, the British colonization that has sapped resources out of their country. Particularly poignant is Gurnah’s subtle rendition of the profound loss these displaced characters carry with them. In part, he achieves this by structuring the plot lightly around Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener” and the relationship different characters have to it.

For Saleh, Bartleby is “a beautiful story.” When he first starts to speak English in the presence of Rachel, his immigration lawyer (after being advised in his home country to “play dumb”), he not only parrots Bartleby’s “I’d prefer not to,” but eagerly hopes that she will pick up the reference and is disappointed when she doesn’t. Saleh, having lost so much of his life, is drawn to Bartleby: “I love the impassive authority of that man’s defeat, the noble futility of his life.” When Latif hears Saleh declare, “I would prefer not to,” he — to Saleh’s delight — immediately recognizes the Bartleby story as one he read in his youth, and has stuck in his mind since moving to England. The immigration lawyer, a character full of activity and purpose, does finally read the tale, and has a different take on the scrivener than Saleh’s: “He made me think of someone dangerous, someone capable of small, sustained cruelties on himself and others weaker than himself, an abuser.”

Interpretations, like the verity of stories, depend upon your seat. Both “are always slipping through our fingers, changing shape, wriggling to get away.”

E-mail comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at letters@metrotimes.com.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Detroit Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Metro Times Press Club for as little as $5 a month.