Carrie and Kjell Resvik
«Abundant in myths, beliefs and myths»
the book: Young Yusef, the main character in Abd al-Razzaq Jarna’s novel “Paradise”, sees Europeans for the first time in his life. The two are tall, heavy, and have red, shielded faces. One of them breaks his teeth in a bite, so Joseph runs away and mumbles the words he learned to say when he needs unexpected and sudden help from God.
The Nobel Prize-winning novel describes the colonial era in East Africa before World War I. Germans are the main people, but the locals along the coast in what is today Tanzania are like a mixture of different cultures. Swahili people, Arabs, Persians, Indian merchants, and savages worship spirits and demons that live in trees and rocks, according to Joseph’s father.
Abd al-Razzaq Qurna, born in Zanzibar in 1948 and came to Britain as an immigrant in 1968, was Professor of Postcolonial Literature at the University of Kent. His fiction writings often had autobiographical features, but they also delved into the colonial history of East Africa. The film “Paradise”, which became his biggest achievement and was nominated for a Booker Prize in 1994, served as a backdrop to the oppression of the German colonial power. The point of view, the outlook, is of course African.
No wonder 12-year-old Youssef is intimidated by the sight of two Europeans at the city’s train station. Rumors were waiting for them. Germans were said to hang people if they didn’t work hard enough. Or cut the balls off them. Someone saw a German putting his hand into a blazing fire without being burned, as if he were a ghost. Others heard of African pigs in South Africa where sweltering heat turned their Dutch brains into porridge, and others watched melees in Petersburg where ice and wind made them scream like gin.
Arab and Indian merchants have traveled. One of them, Uncle Aziz, bought Joseph as a debtor when his father owed him money. Youssef is wise and beautiful at the same time, people think that his mother was visited by an angel. He will be a trusted servant and companion on Aziz’s long journeys deep into Africa. This is near the end of the time of the great trading caravans.
He was 17 years old when Aziz set up a large trading expedition inland towards the Congo and the Great Lakes. They are 45 bearers, servants, musicians, and muscle men who go to the inhospitable scene, known for their snakes, lions, insects, diseases, and warrior tribes. They would sell pickaxes, plows, silk, cotton cloth, and pearls in exchange for ivory and animal skins. People die along the way.
Reply to Joseph Conrad
“Heaven” is often read as a comment, or kind of response, to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1902). But the images of the Horn of Africa are not unequivocally bleak. It depicts the beautiful green lights of mountains, waterfalls, shrines and abundant gardens. The richness of the nuance is greater here, although Joseph’s journey was also a defeat. The caravan is “stuck on the brink of nothingness”, and they have to turn around and spend five months on the return journey. Then they lost out of every fourth man and half of the goods.
The African novel’s view of the colonial masters is realistic, bleak, and horrific at the same time. Europeans are snakes camouflaged with poisonous saliva. Their brutality and cruelty are widely known. “Come to them with a murderer, and their eyes radiate with happiness as they raise the gallows,” the letter read.
The perspective is intriguing, and the story is full of legends, beliefs, and myths, which have been elegantly translated by radar couple Kari and Kjell Risvik. Abdul Razzaq Qurna wrote ten novels, three of which have been translated into Norwegian so far. Paradise is tempting to take a deeper look at his writing.
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