The Magic of Saida, by M.G. Vassanji

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

M.G. Vassanji was the first Giller Prize winner in 1994 with The Book of Secrets. In 2003, he became the first two-time winner with The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (Alice Munro would become the second the next year). And he made another appearance on the shortlist in 2007 with The Assassin’s Song.

So I think it is reasonable to say that there was some expectation that The Magic of Saida would show up on the 2012 Giller longlist. And some surprise when it didn’t — this novel was not published until Sept. 25 so the jury was handing out its judgment some weeks before readers could really test their decision. As someone who was less than enthused about this year’s list, I had the book in my sights as an early post-Giller read, if only to see whether the jury had made a mistake. I have to report that I am in agreement with their assessment: this is a very ambitious novel, but it fails in the execution.

Vassanji is a writer who could fairly be described as “difficult” for readers. Born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania, he came to Canada in 1978 — one of numerous East African Indians who were forced to emigrate from that continent. That experience weighs heavily in all his novels, including this one. His novels also feature extensive casts of characters, frequent snatches of language, ritual and customs not known to this reader at least, and a divergence of settings that reflects that diaspora. When he is good, he is very, very good (I have a high opinion of both The Book of Secrets and Vikram Lall), but when he is bad … well, I won’t say he is horrid, but he is very frustrating to stick with and I’m afraid The Magic of Saida comes all too close to fitting that description.

We meet the central character, Kamal Punja, in a hospital in (presumably) Dar es Salaam — he thinks he has been overdosed with hallucinogenic drugs to make him talk, but it turns out to be malaria. Vassanji’s prologue also introduces us to a sometime narrator of the book, a publisher who has heard Kamal is there, is intrigued by the prospects of his story and drops in to see him — he will join Kamal on his search. Kamal is a doctor who has spent his career in Edmonton, Canada but he was born and raised in Kilwa, Tanzania, sent off to India by his mother at age 12, returned to Africa for his medical studies before fleeing Idi Amin’s regime for Canada and has returned in a search for Saida, his close friend/first love, as a way of closing the loop on his globe-trotting life.

Vassanji reveals all that in a tidy prologue, but the novel immediately becomes even more confusing and complex. The first section of the book itself (“the boy, the girl”) returns us to the Tanzania of Kamal’s childhood in the 1960s. His relationship with Saida begins as a tutor, but the roles are swiftly reversed: Saida is living in the home of Mzee Omari Tamim, “one of our pre-eminent bards, found hanged from Kilwa’s equally famous mango tree, sometime during the 1960s” and Kamal becomes fascinated both with her and her family.

The family relationship story, from the children’s point of view, is complex enough to decipher, but the author soon adds an entirely different layer in the form of introducing the element of global politics. Mzee Omari came to maturity when the Germans were the imperialists; he speaks German and was supported by his political masters. Part of the price he paid was serving as a kind of native poet laureate, composing odes of salute to the German rulers.

By this time, however, the British are in control and preparing to hand over the territory to native leaders. Past co-operation with the Germans is now a crime and the aging poet’s own collaboration a source of considerable discomfort, which will eventually lead to his hanging from that famous mango tree.

The challenge of uncovering what led to that, coupled with the desire to find Saida, are what led to Kamal’s return and the first section (it is slightly more than 100 pages) ends with a tidy summary of his several decades of searching:

“The revelation dawned rather slowly.”

The discovery of the truth did not follow a chronology, coming at the end of painstaking research; it did not come as an explosion of light, lux and veritas. Bits of Mzee Omari’s story had already tantalized him as a child, often to his mother’s exasperation. After he left Kilwa he learned the story of his own Indian grandfather. His later obsession with rare books that had anything to do with the town of his birth revealed to him a patchy history of a backwater belonging to the farthest fringes of mainstream interest. But it was his.

Is it too precious to draw a connection between a middle-aged doctor in the wintry isolation of his study in Canada, carefully turning an illustrated page of a rare book, and the boy sitting quietly on a tropical shore at night listening to a verse recitation of a history? On a couple of occasions of conference travel he had entered the hushed preserves of colonial archives. His revelation is what he arrived at gradually, a story of Kilwa. It begins in the distant past and ends with the death of the poet.

Section two of the novel (“…of the coming of the modern age”) is Kamal’s story told in his own words — the conceit is that this will be part of the book that the narrator publisher hopes to bring to market. It begins in India where Kamal’s father, Punja, has an experience at Sidi Sayyad’s shrine which convinces him that he should go to Africa. Most of this section is the story of Punja (and how he came to know Mzee Omiri), the product of decades of “research” by Kamal into his own roots and what took place before his birth.

Having given us all the back story (and it takes almost two-thirds of the novel’s 305 pages), Vassanji returns to the present day and conventional narrative form for the final two sections of the book. Kamal tells the publisher of how he came to decide that a return to Africa was necessary, what happened during his search and how he came to end up in hospital. By this time, the novel has three distinct narrative streams (albeit centred on the same individual), each with its own cast of characters (and politics) and a host of questions that have been raised and are in need of answering.

Vassanji’s successful novels feature an equal amount of complexity — they work because he performs the difficult act of keeping them all in perspective and enables the reader to join in sorting out the mess that is his over-riding plot. Alas, The Magic of Saida did not do that for me — by the time that I got to the final 75 pages there were simply too many balls in the air for me to keep up with the author. While I certainly appreciate his need to convey the intricacies that produced Kamal’s life, putting them into a pattern became a chore not a reward — quite unlike my experience with either The Book of Secrets or The In-Between Life of Vikram Lall.

The diaspora of East African Indians is a story that deserves telling and Vassanji should be given full credit for devoting his writing life to it. If it is a story that sparks your curiosity, however, either of Giller Prize winners would be a better place to start than The Magic of Saida.

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2 Responses to “The Magic of Saida, by M.G. Vassanji”

  1. markbooks Says:

    Hi Kevin. The subject matter here sounds intriguing, right up my street. Its execution, less so. I might well give it a go, though, so thanks for the tip.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    markbooks: His diaspora theme is both interesting and important — I do think he achieves better results in some of his previous books.

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