The Book of Secrets, by M. G. Vassanji

KfC's 1994 edition

KfC's 1994 edition

Sixteen years ago, the Giller Prize was just an interesting idea. Canadian book review readers were certainly familiar with the name of the late Doris Giller, from her work in both Montreal and Toronto; her husband, Jack Rabinovitch, had established Canada’s richest fiction prize ($25,000) in her memory. It is probably fair to say that in the days leading up to the first prize announcement more attention was paid to Jack’s other “prize” gesture — it would be announced at an invitation-only dinner in Toronto’s ritzy Four Seasons Hotel ballroom. The Giller is now firmly established, not just in Canada, but globally. And an invite to that dinner from which the prize ceremony is now nationally televised is one of the most sought after honors in Canada’s literary and reading community.

giller avatarOne reason for all of the attention to the dinner rather than the books was that the original shortlist did not feature a book from a Canadian “name” author. The first shortlist:

– Bonnie Burnard, Casino and Other Stories, her second book. She would win the 1999 Giller with A Good House and her fourth book, Suddenly, is eligible this year.
— Eliza Clark, What You Need, another second book. Clark has published three novels since, none of which have attracted much attention.
— Shyam Selvadurai, Funny Boy, a first novel. The Sri Lankan-born followed it with the well-received Cinnamon Gardens and later won a children’s and young readers’ Lambda Literary award for Swimming in the Monsoon Sea.
— Steve Weiner, The Museum of Love, another debut novel. As far as I can tell, he has written only one since (The Yellow Sailor) — I have not read either.
— M. G. Vassanji, The Book of Secrets, his third novel and the eventual winner. He would win again in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, joining Alice Munro as the only two-time Giller winners.

While nobody knew it at the time, that initial list would establish some patterns that have recurred in the following years. Virtually every shortlist has featured a short story collection, unlike the Booker Prize which does not consider them. There is almost always a debut novel or collection. Small publishers tend to be well represented. Writers born and raised elsewhere with books set outside Canada often do well (think Rohinton Mistry for A Fine Balance, the second winner). And, for those who want to be grumpy, despite all this, the winner is usually an established author — Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Mordecai Richler, for example. Vincent Lam is the only winner with a debut book (Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, 2006).

As part of the 2009 Shadow Giller project, I was intrigued at the prospect of revisiting this first winner. A post-colonial novel, set in British East Africa, pre World War I, but extending into the 1980s — how would it hold up 16 years later? The answer is a guarded very well — it is not a great book but was certainly worth the reread.

The framework for A Book of Secrets is an investigation by Pius Fernandes, a Goanese teacher who has spent his working life in Africa and remained in Tanganyika after independence and his retirement. A former student who now supports him has given him a diary that he has found (the book of secrets of the title) from a British administrator based in British East Africa (now Kenya) in 1913. While the novel is set in Africa and the politics are both imperial and post-colonial, it does not have a lot of black Africans in it. Rather, it centres on the relationships between the colonial masters and the first diaspora from the Raj, with exploration of the consequences that these non-native servants of the imperial masters faced when the British withdrew. It is a subject the author knows well — Vassanji was born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania and came to Canada in 1978, part of the second diaspora for those Indian immigrants who are at the centre of the story.

Part one of the book centres on the administrator, Arthur Corbin, and what he has recorded in that diary. Vassanji uses this section to explore how the colonial masters ruled (confusedly, a mix of attempted understanding and a very iron fist) and to establish the uncertain position of those Indian immigrants. They are essential to the functioning of the empire and control most of the commerce, but this is not their “home”, as they are frequently reminded. That sense of dislocation, isolation and powerlessness will become a dominant theme of the novel.

We are also introduced to Mariamu, an intriguing mixed-blood female, who will also become a thread for the rest of the book. Corbin actually spots her on his arrival at his first post; she eventually becomes a servant in his household and perhaps more. The section closes with Mariamu’s botched wedding night to Pipa, who will become the focus on part two of the story.

That first section also closes with the arrival of the war — while Britain controlled what is now Kenya, Germany controlled Tanganyika, so like it or not these people are part of the war. For both the Africans and the Indian economic class, this is a source of much confusion since the boundary between the two territories is totally arbitrary to their customs and life. The author uses this section to tell Pipa’s story, both how he wandered through much of this part of Africa in his early life, but also to illustrate the customs, rules and controls the immigrant class placed on its members. In this world, the masters might have the ultimate power but, particularly during the war, that is not the only power. Indeed, in this period it is more of distraction than anything else for the people who have to live there.

Pipa and Mariamu have a son before she is brutally attacked and murdered, a curiously light-colored son. From this point on, that son (he styles himself as Prince Aly Khan) and the teacher Fernandes pick up the story. The framework of the diary is always there but Vassanji is now in post-imperial territory — having outlined what produced these people, he explores how they deal with the post-colonial world. In typical form for this author, he has loaded a Pandora’s box with a wealth of plot lines and slowly, but very surely, brings them all to a conclusion.

Vassnji’s two best novels (this one and Vikram Lall) are a study in how an author can create numerous layers of both plot and meaning in a book. The cast of characters is not only large, the relationships between them and the forces that act upon them are equally complex. He is not easy to read (that’s one reason you aren’t seeing any quotes in the review — he is a story builder and teller, not a “writer”) but at his best he is a master at both maintaining and resolving that complexity. While this book does stumble at times in the middle section (building all that complexity becomes a bit tedious reading at times), if you can get past that, the concluding pages of this book are as well-written and moving as any I have read in a long time.

The Giller was off to a fine start, with a winning book that remains relevant to this day — the revisit exceeded my expectations and they were pretty high going in. The longlist for year 16 will be announced on Monday and I’ll offer a commentary here along with an explanation of how this year’s Shadow Giller jury (Trevor Berrett from themookseandthegripes and Alison Gzowski join KfC on this year’s shadow jury) intends to go about its work. Do come back.

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3 Responses to “The Book of Secrets, by M. G. Vassanji”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve not read this book, but I have his new one — The Assassin’s Song — in my reading queue thanks to the lovely people at Canongate. It was released in the UK last month. Shamefully, I had never heard of him before. Now, having read your review of The Book of Secrets, I’m intrigued enough to bump him up the queue.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I hate to be a spoiler, kimbofo, but for me Vassanji runs very hot and cold — when he is good, he is very good and when he is bad he is horrid. I obviously like this book a lot (and Vikram Lall in many ways is even better) but I struggled to finish The Assassin’s Song. That said, that’s only my impression.

  3. diane Says:

    Hey kevin, I just discovered your blog and it looks like your reading taste is somewhat similiar to mine, so I’ll be back to see what you’ve enjoyed reading :)

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