When Abdulrazak Gurnah was growing up in 1950s Zanzibar, he was told stories of the First World War and how his mother’s uncle was conscripted by the colonial forces in then German East Africa to be a “carrier” – an unpaid porter who would drag heavy equipment around. He would travel on the roof of train carriages because there was no room inside.
“He was quite a canny, resourceful man like that,” says Gurnah, who now lives in Canterbury in the UK. “So I expect he deserted at the earliest possible opportunity.”
At least he survived – Gurnah says the carriers were among the greatest Tanzanian casualties of the First World War because they were coerced and conscripted – slaves, effectively. And stories such as these, of colonialism's effect on what is now Tanzania, have always percolated in Gurnah's mind. In 1994, Paradise, his tale of a young Muslim boy who goes on a trading mission into the country's interior just as the German army begins to sweep into his land, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
While it's too simplistic to call his new novel, Afterlives, a follow-up, it certainly picks up where his most successful novel finished. It tells the story of Hamza, who is sold into the Schutztruppe askari (the German colonial troops) and returns to the town of his childhood utterly traumatised. There, he meets Afiya, a young girl battling societal expectations, and slowly finds purpose, friendship and love. Meanwhile, Afiya's brother, Ilyas, is another askari recruit who goes missing during the war, but turns up in postscript, decades later. The glue binding these disparate lives together is the cynical, but ultimately kindly, Khalifa, a Muslim man from a poor Gujarati family who guides them towards some kind of reconciliation with their pasts, "a sentimental bearer of crimes".
"I've been thinking and reflecting on the various dimensions of colonialism throughout my adult life, both as a writer and an academic," says Gurnah, 72. He recently retired as emeritus professor of English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent.
"In Paradise, I was posing the question of how societies and cultures collapsed with relative ease against the colonial infringement. What was it that made it possible for colonial powers to walk in with their maps already drawn and say, 'this belongs to us now?'
"That question is still present in Afterlives but it's also concerned with how people coped with it. Afterlives is literally a look at life after the traumatic events of the war and the experience of colonialism."
This forgotten piece of African history and its paradoxes – one of the German officers bemoans lying and killing for an empire under the guise of being a civilising force – is the mechanism by which Gurnah elegantly draws compelling characters who have to deal with the consequences. The German officer who takes Hamza under his wing in the first half of the book both dominates and protects him. "There is a sense that Hamza learns valuable skills and becomes stronger, but he is also terrified," Gurnah says.
"Colonialism obviously transformed everything, and in that process you can find good aspects," he adds. "There was a moral argument about improvement of people, but the primary reason these colonial powers built railways and hospitals was to make the population more efficient in what they wanted them to do – to increase profit and gain."
And yet, despite the horrors of war that dominate the opening phases of the book, Afterlives is largely hopeful. The characters survive, as Gurnah puts it, through small kindnesses to each other. Hamza's humanity reflects back on those who he encounters.
"Gentleness and kindness does resonate with people," agrees Gurnah. "It's how we save each other from utter despair and self-destruction. This is what it means to be in a community; people always talk about the spirit of the war in England and I think you could say the same of where I'm writing about here. People are not always cruel to each other in these circumstances."
This sense of a community in Afterlives is such a refreshing antidote to the usual ghettoisation of peoples, races and cultures. It's less a utopian ideal, more how Gurnah has always felt about the coast of East Africa, growing up as he did in a mixed community where people "did not worry so much about distinctions".
"There is something humane and civilised about small societies – in this case made up of those who have travelled all over the Indian Ocean," he says. "There may be complicated issues of difference and some are protective about policing that difference, but really it's the way maps have been drawn by nation states that has changed the way people communicate."
In the end, though, Gurnah is keen that people enjoy Afterlives and it's the moving connection between Afiya and Hamza which ultimately becomes its centrepiece, the story of Ilyas being an intriguing real-life coda that could have been a novel in itself.
"The idea of a traumatised young man arriving in town, meeting a young woman also wounded by gender oppression … stories like that just come out of the blue," Gurnah says.
“And when they do, it feels like a piece of luck; you find something worth following up … and away you go.”
With that, we have gone full circle, back to the pure joy of storytelling that a young Gurnah revelled in. Afterlives reveals, 10 novels and nearly 35 years in, he has not lost that magic.