Review of The Book Of Secrets by M.G. Vassanji
September 6, 1999
This article originally appeared in India Currents Magazine in March of 1995, under the title, “Out Of East Africa.” It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
It would seem unavoidable that M.G. Vassanji, fresh from the critical success of his latest novel The Book Of Secrets, would be compared to other giants of the Canadian immigrant literary experience.
An academic with scholarly origins at M.I.T., Vassanji is known first as editor of the prestigious Toronto Review (formerly South Asian Review), a serious literary journal. His background as an Indian immigrant to Canada from a Commonwealth nation outside of India (Kenya) immediately places him amongst other Indo-Canadian writers of similar extraction and local artistic prominence: Michael Ondaatje (from Sri Lanka) and Neil Bissoondath (from Trinidad), among others.
Indeed, The Book Of Secrets evokes responses similar to those elicited by Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prizewinner The English Patient. And yet it is clear that in many ways Vassanji’s opus far outshines that of his celebrated countryman. While both novels deal with love and humanity, occasionally in Africa and sometimes around the time of World War II, The Book Of Secrets embraces a sage realism that harkens to an earlier style of storytelling, that of E.M. Forrester and Somerset Maugham, leaving its contemporaries grasping for the sense of history and cultural evolution that Vassanji so fully understands.
It is the story of a stolen diary –a book of secrets– belonging to the British governor of a small fictitious town in Tangyanika (modern Tanzania) beginning at the start of this century. Around the diary is woven a fabulous yarn about a young Shamsi Indian and his mysterious wife, and the forces of world history that break down their door and haunt three generations of Tanzanian Indians.
It is an encompassing tale that meanders through lives, but makes its way back to the centre thread like improvisational jazz, as soothing and emotion-provoking. Beyond the obligatory travails of forbidden love and a dabbling in magic realism are explored truths of life, its organic qualities and tones –no implausible characters or dismissively unlikely events.
Told from the perspective of a retired Dar-es-Salaam teacher who finds the diary and reconstructs its story, Vassanji’s tale is rich with memorable interlopers and vivid descriptions of Indian East Africa from 1913 to 1988. And despite the potency and simplicity of a very probable narrative, the engine that truly powers the novel is indeed its littleness in the face of the overwhelming historic events that engulf it.
From the small but impactive parts played by the colonies in two world wars, to the arrival of commercial wealth, Western ideals and Tanzanian independence, the tangible taste of observable history is the protagonist here. Casual reference to the migration of Indian culture to separated pockets of intense concentration –London, Dubai, Toronto and New York– serves as a map of global change.
The evolution of community is an important theme in the book. The perseverance of Arab-Indian culture and the preservation of its community’s central tenets despite geo-political tumult and commercial forces of change are binding strings kept strong and taught in Vassanji’s thematic web.
Outstripping Ondaatje’s international bestseller in importance and living vitality, Vassanji uses an effortless familiarity with East Africa’s history and inhabitants as his vehicle for education, at times invoking the style and immediacy of Salman Rushdie’s earlier jocular novels.
Vassanji’s novel is a story of displacement, physical and emotional, and of one’s search for importance, love and safety in the face of dramatic terrestrial machinations. In many ways, The Book Of Secrets is written for Eastern immigrants to the West, particularly in these times of shifting borders and alliances and of the emergence of the so-called new world order. “Mediocrity was the new order, and idealogical correctness,” says the book’s narrator of his new students. “The new generation of students who came were sent by a government seeking bureaucrats, not, as in the past, by a community eager to get ahead in the world.”
But to epitomize the true flavour of the book, one must quote a film song oft recited by prancing school girls in The Book Of Secrets. “The world belongs to the one who loves,” they sing, with more than a touch of sadness.