One of the joys of reading is finding a piece of yourself in the pages of a book and feeling like the world is a bit smaller because someone has understood and put into words the way you feel. Recently I read Abdul Razak Gurnah’s book “The Last Gift” and it was a read that was packed with such moments.
The book is about a couple named Abbas and Maryam who have been married for thirty years and their two children Jamal and Anna. Jamal is doing his PhD in migration, Maryam is frustrated and uncertain about her long term relationship and the four of them are a family who know little about each other’s lives. When Abbas suffers from a diabetic crisis and a stroke at the beginning of the book however, the stories and secrets of their family begin to emerge.
More than simply an interesting novel, it is a fascinating and thoughtful read that addresses themes of identity, immigration, belonging, family, relationships, duty and love. Though we may not have deep secrets we’ve all had that feeling of realising that there is much we don’t know about those we love, and in its juxtaposition of a family oblivious to the thoughts and history of one another, and observations about what it means to belong and to feel foreign in a place more generally, this book makes you think deeply about how you define the word home, and the cruelty and harshness we often show to those we care about the most.
In addition to asking its reader to think about what it means to be a family, it asks the reader to think about the privilege in our own lives. It points out the conversations we may enter not considering the assumptions we are making about the lives of others or the privilege involved when we expect others to answer our very personal questions.
Below, some of my favourite, most memorable passages from the book.
There was a library, with hundreds of books that he could take home to read if he wished. It was like all his schooling, until then had taken place in a small room, a small empty shut away room. Then someone had opened the door and he found out that the room was a tiny little cell in a huge building. (p.128)
On Knowledge and Adulthood..
He felt that he was at an important moment in his life although he was not sure of the source of this feeling. Perhaps it was a sense of impeding decisions, that for the first time in his life he would be able to choose what he would do with himself. He considered this and decided that he did not think it was that. Perhaps it was to do with approaching the end of his PhD, a sense of completing a job and it was this which made him feel grown up, an adult, an agent in the world. He did feel that sense but that was a plodder’s delight, satisfaction at (nearly) getting a job done, not any expectation of having arived at transforming knowledge. (p.85)
It was what he studied, migration trends and policies in the European Union. He could describe the patterns and provide the historical context, locate this wave from the Maghreb and its destination and that one from Zimbabwe and how it dispersed. He could construct tables and draw graphs, yet he knew that each one of those dots on his chart had a story that the graphs could not illustrate. He knew that from his Ba, and he knew that from the faces that he saw in the streets, and from the silent spaces in the reports he read. He knew that it was a clutter of ambition and fear and desperation and incomprehension that brought people so far and enabled them to put up with so much. (p.86)
On Stereotypes and Privilege
“They were all looking at her, waiting for her to speak, to tell them what her real nation was. She wished she could get up and leave, and walk quickly to the train station and travel to wherever her real nation was. She wished she had more panache, and knew how to charm people she did not like.” (p.116)
On War and Citizenship..
“They took no notice of those who marched, or of others who didn’t march but raised their objections in other ways, and went right ahead with their war. It made Jamal wonder what it meant to be a citizen: how millions of them listened to what they were told, and thought about it and were not persuaded, how so many people, all over the world, spoke their reluctance and outrage and disagreement, and yet how all of this made no difference. ” (p.126)