When love flies in the face of race and class

Two sets of lovers spark ire in colonial Africa

Forbidden love affairs have always fascinated. Whether it's the biblical tale of David and Bathsheba, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, or Joey and Rachel on "Friends" we seem never to lose interest when the forbidden and the romantic intersect.

A taboo relationship is at the center of Abdulrazak Gurnah's new (and seventh) novel, "Desertion," set against the cultural upheaval of British colonialism and African independence.

Like a pebble dropped in a pond, Gurnah carefully traces the consequences of an affair between an African woman and Englishman through families and generations.

The result is a quietly affecting, though somewhat disjointed, story of love and loneliness - and a sad testament to the narrow religious and cultural confines within which many people are forced to try to sustain their relationships.

Martin Pearce makes his somewhat unlikely arrival in a small seaside town in the British colony of Zanzibar in 1899. Abandoned by his Somali guides after leaving a hunting party, the English historian and Orientalist is nearly dead from exposure before being rescued by a shopkeeper.

The shopkeeper's sister, Rehana, nurses him. Though still in her 20s and beautiful, Rehana was jilted when her Indian merchant husband returned to his homeland for work and never came back. Now she is on course to spend the rest of her life in her brother's house leading a celibate life of cooking and cleaning.

By contrasting their two worlds, Gurnah attempts to show that this was not a simple fling. Both fully understood the potential danger and consequences of pursuing an interracial relationship.

Pearce "was not a naïve young sailor from a rural backwater ... touched into impetuousness by the beauty of an exotic jewel." He had lived in Egypt working for the British government and he had traveled widely.

Rehana, too understood the repercussions of a possible affair in her conservative Islamic village. Her community was made up of people who had no "knowledge or interest in clandestine love affairs" and who "punished each other mercilessly for any indiscretions in such matters, with ridicule and shame and worse."

But lovers they became. When Rehana's family protested their relationship and Pearce's contemporaries in the colonial administrations thought he had "gone too far," the couple moved to a larger city and lived together openly.

There are some weaknesses, however, in the tale that Gurnah tells. Although he wants the reader to believe that theirs is a story of true love, little explanation is provided when Pearce deserts Rehana, returning to England soon after she becomes pregnant.

Certainly the reader wants them to make a go of it - and Gurnah tells us again and again that they are in love - but in the end he doesn't do enough to convince us that their relationship is anything other than an exotic infatuation.

Then (with no warning) the story jumps 50 years ahead to the late 1950s, the eve of Zanzibar's independence from Britain. Rehana and Martin's granddaughter, Jamila - a vibrant, independent, divorced woman - pursues a younger man, Amin. (Amin's brother, Rashid, who leaves Africa to study in England, adds another voice and dimension to the tale.)

A clandestine relationship develops, lived out in darkened apartments and in the grasses surrounding the village. Here Gurnah perfectly renders the breathless exhilaration of first love and his characters - pulled from a time and place that seem to come from firsthand experience - seem truer to life.

"He [Amin] marveled at the feel of her body under the touch of his hands. ... He had expected something lighter, he realized, because for him she had been someone abstract, a fantasy."

But when Amin's parents, strict adherents to Islam, learn of his love affair they threaten to disown him.

"Do you know what kind of people they are? Her grandmother was ... the mistress of an Englishman for many years," his incensed mother cries. "This woman you say you love, she is like her grandmother, living a life of secrets and sin."

Out of fear and love for his family Amin agrees never to see Jamila again.

At the heart of "Desertion" are people who are willing to step outside the cultural constraints of family and religion to pursue the things they desire.

Unfortunately this doesn't always translate into happiness as the ability to sustain these relationships is often crippled by the people around them. In fact most often the character's choices lead to heartbreaking results.

The larger tragedy, Gurnah seems to be implying, is the families and communities whose attitudes hardly change over the course of half a century.

Aaron Clark is a freelance writer based in New York.

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