Review of By The Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah

By Tasnima Yasmin

“It is difficult to know with precision how things became as

they have, to be able to say with some assurance that first it was

this and it then led to that and the other, and now here we are.”

Set around the fine line that distinguishes the shock and surprise when the Orient and Occident meet, By the Sea is an emotional tale of hope pinned against a conspiring post- colonial world. It is about the character Saleh Omar who arrives on one November afternoon at Gatwick Airport from Zanzibar. Relayed in the first- person narrative voice, By the Sea is a tale of an asylum seeker who travels for the first time in a flight to reach his land of exile, the United Kingdom. This ordinary individual is a spectacle for the immigration officers. They find with his baggage that is both the physical luggage and the emotional turmoil brimming to spill but cautiously suppressed by him. His documents are not in place and he pretends to not know English at all in an effort to appear meek and helpless as instructed by the agents in his home country.   

Another interesting aspect is the little bag of collectibles that Omar Saleh carries with him which is scrutinised closely at the customs office of the airport. In it is his most precious mahogany box of incense that he uses every Idd to make his house fragrant. This brings in the past and his life in the home country which is seamlessly imbibed with his present state of being a refugee. It is the impeccable writing style of Gurnah that best brings out the complexity of the situation in which a displaced, alienated and stuck in the past for a good amount of the time. Latif Mahmoud who is a kin but acts as a foil character and yet again not quite so, spares no chance to shower accusations on Omar Saleh from time to time. This brings in the sub plot of a deep seated inter familial fued. The multiplicity of locales from Zanzibar to London to Malaysia to Persia adds a transcendental feel to the enticing narrative making By the Sea unputdownable. Every page has something new, something unexpected. What is most captivating are certain lines interspersing the events of the plot that bring out profound truths about life, migration, transcending borders and the challenges of being a diaspora.    

With a charming narrative voice that bears a resolute silence and bustling mystery at the same time, By The Sea is a gripping tale of migration and the struggles of migrants in the contemporary setup. Beneath the glamour of travel and treading time zones is a loneliness like no other. Gurnah picks on despair of the migrant, dissects it to the umpteenth level to expose the shattering hollowness of the individual behind the process that is ill affected but cannot undo the steps of migration. Thus, silence becomes a companion to confide as the realisation hits that words are not enough to express the deep seated remorse of acclimatising when expected to naturalise with the unfamiliar new surroundings for a better future. Gurnah adds perspective to facts that are not unknown but in a manner that only someone who has experience and insight can observe.

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