- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: The New Press (May 1, 1995)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1565841638
- ISBN-13: 978-1565841635
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 9 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,253,683 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Paradise Paperback – May 1, 1995
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From the Back Cover
Paradise is at once the story of an African boy's coming of age, a tragic love story, and a tale of the corruption of traditional African patterns by European colonialism. It presents a major African voice to American readers - a voice that prompted Peter Tinniswood to write in the London Times, reviewing Gurnah's previous novel, "Mr. Gurnah is a very fine writer. I am certain he will become a great one". Paradise is Abdulrazak Gurnah's great novel. At twelve, Yusuf, the protagonist of this twentieth-century odyssey, is sold by his father in repayment of a debt. From the simple life of rural Africa, Yusuf is thrown into the complexities of precolonial urban East Africa - a fascinating world in which Muslim black Africans, Christian missionaries, and Indians from the subcontinent coexist in a fragile, subtle social hierarchy. Through the eyes of Yusuf, Gurnah depicts communities at war, trading safaris gone awry, and the universal trials of adolescence. Then, just as Yusuf begins to comprehend the choices required of him, he and everyone around him must adjust to the new reality of European colonialism. The result is a page-turning saga that covers the same territory as the novels of Isak Dinesen and William Boyd, but does so from a perspective never before available on that seldom-chronicled part of the world.
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Paradise is the story of an adolescent boy, Yusuf, in early 20th century Tanzania. Yusuf's parents sell him to a merchant to satisfy a debt, and he spends the rest of the book working in the merchant's shop and accompanying him on a trading expedition to the interior. And that's the plot in its entirety. Apparently it's supposed to be a parable, mirroring the story of the Prophet Yusuf (the same person as Joseph in Genesis, unless I miss my guess). Unfortunately, the book is written in a plodding style and Yusuf is a non-entity, without personality or goals to keep the reader's interest. I've read interpretations arguing Yusuf was written as a blank state to symbolize Tanzania, which was at a crossroads (we see the beginning of European colonization here, as well as Arab and Indian influences). I suspect that does Tanzania a disservice, however, as no country could possibly be as boring as Yusuf.
I try to give foreign literature the benefit of the doubt, as there's always the possibility that I just lack the cultural background to understand it, and East African readers would doubtless appreciate this more than I do. There is some story here, albeit a plodding one, and there are sparks of character among the secondary cast, particularly the merchants. While there's not an enormous amount of cultural detail, the book did put Tanzania on my mental map in a way that it wasn't before. However, this book completely failed to entertain me, and I found little to appreciate in the writing. (My favorite line: " `I don't know,' Uncle Aziz said, shrugging with indifference." Yes, the shrug had already tipped me off to his indifference.)
In the end, not a book I'd recommend unless you are Tanzanian or are writing a thesis on a relevant topic. For the rest of us, not much to see here.
The story switches from the rural interior to the cosmopolitan urban coastal world. The boy and his uncle are Moslem; the young man who runs the store and takes charge of the boy is Indian; the interior folks have traditional African religions. There is discussion of differences among the various gods. The characters use a variety of languages including Arabic, German and English; the lingua franca is Swahili. There is much discussion of “what do the Europeans want?”
The boy’s trip into the interior is a stand-alone adventure story. In this all-male world of travelers and traders there is much homoerotic talk and some sex. Our narrator, who is a “pretty boy,” is constantly fending off advances from men. The beginning of the end starts when he begins to get involved with his master’s two wives. In the end the defining moment brings our main character back to the beginning: will he accept his serfdom for life or will he revolt? Everyone else accepts their serfdom: even if you are “freed,” where can you go? What would you do?