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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Pilgrims Way

Abdulrazak Gurnah

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To purchase Pilgrims Way

Title: Pilgrims Way
Author: Abdulrazak Gurnah
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988
Length: 281 pages
Availability: Pilgrims Way - US
Pilgrims Way - UK
Pilgrims Way - Canada
Schwarz auf Weiß - Deutschland
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : trenchant portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 11/6/1988 Isabel Quigly
London Rev. of Books . 4/8/1988 Philip Horne
The Times . 2/6/1988 Andrew Sinclair

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pilgrims Way shocks with its account of British racism. The writing is layered: action, and wishes or action-manqué, speech, and Daud's unspoken thoughts; it is strong and sparky." - Isabel Quigly, Financial Times

  • "The special intelligence of Gurnah's novel is to realise that the psychological damage caused by real persecution need be no less serious than that caused by a condition of mind like Castel's which creates its own delusive threats: and Pilgrims Way is essentially the story of Daud's struggle, through comic extravagance, answering hostility and the energies of love, to regain a self-respect of which England has helped to rob him. (...) The submerged presence of Daud's Tanzanian exaltations and despairs, his memories of bloodbaths and lost beauties, gives the book unique force as a rendering of racial tension while keeping away from the cliché-ridden territory of the ‘right on’, the ideologically pre-processed." - Philip Horne, London Review of Books

  • "Mr Gurnah has a wry humour that is pungent and acerbic, sparing no assumption. He is as merciless to exaggerated black militancy as to illiterate white hooliganism. Yet his Daud is not marginal or weak as so many,English comic heroes are. He is both defiant and deprecatory: his sting is sharper than his sneer." - Andrew Sinclair, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Pilgrims Way is set in the mid-1970s in an unnamed English city. (The descriptions, especially of the local cathedral, the title, and author Gurnah's own biography make quite clear that the city is Canterbury.) Its protagonist is Daud, who has been in England for five years now and, after a brief time at university, now works as a(n operating-)theatre orderly in a local hospital. Daud is variously out of place: in this job, for one, as those around him recognize that he doesn't really belong: "What exactly are you doing in that place ?" a new nurse asks him when she is just getting to know him -- adding: "A clever man like you ?" There's also his living situation, spacious enough but grungy digs that the nurse, Catherine, is appalled by when she sees them. Most of all, there's the fact that he is a 'wog', a foreigner who faces a constant barrage of abuse simply because of the color of his skin.
       We only slowly learn more about Daud's background -- that he is from Africa, that there had been a revolution in his homeland (and the duplicity that had instilled in him, "a habit of fear that the years after the revolution had taught them all"); only late on does he actually name the country he is from -- Tanzania -- and only then do we learn some of the experiences there that had shaped and scarred him and led him to escape to England. Once abroad, money was always an issue, but he gave up his studies because he found himself: "a shambles of bitterness and despair". Still, he hopes to return to university once he has steadied himself; finding a partner, in Catherine, helps him down that path.
       There are two people in his closer social circle -- not really friends, but the people who come visit him and go out with him. One is Karta Benso, a student from Sierra Leone; his given name was Carter Benson-Hylen, named 'Carter' after the senior partner at a firm his father worked at as a solicitor's clerk. The other is Lloyd, a (white) local who frequently shows up at Daud's with some groceries and similar kinds of handouts -- welcome charity, on the one hand, but also annoying Daud. Karta constantly abuses Lloyd and his colonizer-race, but Lloyd still joins the two faithfully; Daud suspects that at some point an actual physical altercation between the two is inevitable (and he's right about that). They are stifling company -- even Daud realizes: "He should get out more, get away from them" -- but it's all of a piece with the rut he is mired so deeply in.
       Daud asks (the white nurse) Catherine out and a romantic relationship quickly develops. She doesn't feign interest in his one great passion -- cricket --, telling him to change the subject when he brings it up, and isn't put off by his defensive obnoxiousness -- "'Are you like this all the time ?' she asked. 'Anyway, stop being so unpleasant and tell me about your true ambitions.'" -- and gets him to open up some, but it takes a while before he really can. Meanwhile, she isn't entirely upfront with him either; she tells him about her family, but it's a while before he gets a true sense of her circles:

     We go around as a little group, you know. All the men are doctors, and all the women are nurses. Some of the older women have been passed from one man to another, although that's not what we call it. Like Paula. The lucky ones marry their doctors and whisk them away. That's what I was into.
       The historic 'Pilgrims Way' (Gurnah opts for the apostrophe-less spelling) ends in Canterbury, at the shrine of Thomas Becket in the Canterbury Cathedral -- a place Daud has never visited, despite his many years living right nearby. He is a Muslim, but while it's not the religious aspect that's kept him from it, it's been a conscious decision. The symbolism -- of his not having completed his journey -- is made quite clear.
       Daud isn't a loner, but he's found himself quite isolated for quite long, keeping people at a distance with, among other things, a sharp and quick tongue. An amusing habit Gurnah ascribes to him is having him write imaginary letters -- typical for Daud, rather than trying to engage in dialogue, and typically, too, they aren't actually meant to be sent, not least because some of those he imagines writing to are out of reach, like cricket legend Sir Gary Sobers, or even dead:
Whenever things looked as if they were getting out of hand, he dashed off a calming letter. Dear Sir Gary, May you live for ever. The thought of Sir Gary never failed to soothe him. Dear Herr Nietzsche, he ranted when irritation overcame him.
       Gurnah seems a bit unsure about employing this device -- there's quite a bit of it early on, but then he largely avoids it for much of the novel -- but correspondence figures otherwise as well, not least in Daud's lack of communication with his family back home, as he basically no longer knows what to tell them; among much else, he is also living with the guilt of having disappointed them. One actual letter also figures prominently, when a long-delayed one from an old friend brings memories of his past to the fore again.
       Daud encounters endless racism, nearly everywhere he turns: "little acts of abuse and pressure" that become: "a relentless pressure". It all wears him down; as he tells Catherine: "It's demoralising". Beyond that, he's worn down by not finding a place in this country:
It's being a stranger. That is what is so crushing. The community you live in carries on in its complicated way, and it's entirely indifferent to you. It requires nothing from you, and in return you are a complete irrelevance to it. You are free. But you're also without function. Do what you like, it makes no difference. You see, sometimes it's tempting to think of yourself as in some kind of exile. Exile means there is no choice. There's a purpose or a principle behind what you do. But really the matter is much less lofty than that.
       The pervasiveness, relentlessness, and depth of the racism is both grim and shocking. It is all very much out in the open, with even Catherine considering her position, and the reaction of her family and friends; in some ways, the very open discussion of it is welcome -- as is the fact that, nearly fifty years on, much that is described here is no longer as readily imaginable, much of the kind of racism on display here now at least no longer ubiquitous in England but rather limited to (still too many ...) smaller pockets of society.
       In the background for much of the novel is the 1976 West Indies cricket tour of England, especially the five test matches -- the West Indies famously beating England in the final three after the initial two draws. Daud is a devoted cricket fan, and follows the matches wherever he can; the West Indies triumphs -- on British soil, no less -- give him intense satisfaction, and make for a nice backdrop for the novel, the colonized coming to England to crush the one-time masters ......
       There's something of a rawness to much of the action, from the blunt verbal exchanges to the filth and squalor -- notably both at Daud's work, cleaning up operating rooms, and home. Gurnah is good at conveying psychology, getting into Daud's mind, and yet we're left not knowing him well in other regards, such as his academic interests. Similarly, Catherine remains in many ways something of a cipher. It's not that Gurnah doesn't delve deeply into his characters, but large parts of them do remain in the shadows.
       Pilgrims Way is a striking portrait, both of place and time as well as of the character Daud. If the love affair he enters into proceeds almost too easily, Gurnah does capture the hardships of life and these circumstance otherwise very well in this powerful novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 May 2022

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Pilgrims Way: Reviews: Abdulrazak Gurnah: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2021.

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© 2022 the complete review

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