Archive for the ‘Vassanji, M.G. (2)’ Category

The Magic of Saida, by M.G. Vassanji

November 6, 2012

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.

The Book of Secrets, by M. G. Vassanji

September 17, 2009

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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