Paradise is a little book about a boy named Yusuf who grows into manhood in East Africa. As a coming of age story it is remarkably simple and straightforward, but the way in which Abdulrazak Gurnah illuminates the tremendous historical changes sweeping around Yusuf, and does so while still maintaining the narrative integrity of his man-child protagonist, is simply breathtaking.
Yusuf starts out in a provincial town in the East African interior, the son of a poor hotel owner. He is mortgaged by his father to pay his deepening debt to a man Yusuf knows only as Uncle Aziz. Yusuf travels in the care of Uncle Aziz to the coast, where he befriends Khalil, another debt-slave whose has secrets Yusuf will eventually discover.
Yusuf is an exceptionally beautiful boy and a very sensitive observer who cries at visions he sees in his dreams. His journeys in Paradise mirror two processes which bound the interiors of Eastern Africa to the Western Indian Ocean--one a process of the migration (often via slavery) and subsequent Islamization of upcountry Africans, and the other a venturing into the interior as far as Eastern Congo by armed bands of Swahili-Arab traders.
Gurnah's description of life on the caravan road is illuminative and he vividly portrays the 'utani' relationship of sly joking and storytelling by which the porters structured the monotony of the march. He also gives one of the richest explorations (through dialogue) of the fantastic dimensions of East African Islamic mythology, in which the 'washenzi' lurk in the lands of Gog and Magog waiting to destroy the believers and dragons, birds, jinns, and ghosts all inhabit a universe in intimate interaction with humans. Finally in the background are the Germans, a brooding silent foreboding force who everyone around Yusuf speaks of with trepidation, and who intervene at a key point in the novel. Gurnah accurately captures the ambigous status of Yusuf as grows up on the eve of European colonial rule, and searches for a way out of his dependency. His unexpected decision ends the book abruptly, almost breathlessly, but somehow completely appropriately. In this single last sentence, Gurnah has somehow captured what Jonathan Glassman calls "the contradictory dimensions of slave resistance," the moral dilemma through which Yusuf will shape an independent destiny for himself. Paradise more than lives up to his name and will offer students of East African history and literature a beautiful and compelling read.