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.”
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