M. G. Vassanji, The Magic of Saida

A very short review of this appeared in Saturday’s Hindustan Times. I’d read and enjoyed Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall a few years ago, as well as some of his non-fiction so I was particularly disappointed with how inconsequential The Magic of Saida felt. It wasn’t a terrible book (at his worst Vassanji’s unlikely ever to be a bad writer), but I’ve read bad books that had some direction or purpose or something.

Here’s a version of the review, anyway.

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A publisher visiting a hospital in Dar es Salaam meets a recovering patient with a story to tell. This is Kamal Punja, a successful doctor from Canada who has returned to Tanzania to seek out his childhood friend and lover.

M.G. Vassanji is partially exploring his own roots with this latest work – he too is a resident of Canada with ties to India and Tanzania. The Magic of Saida sometimes treads dangerously close to being a book about immigrant identity. Martin Kigoma, the publisher to whom Kamal tells his story, muses that he “demonstrated how complicated a real life could be in our times, how painful the idea of belonging”. The young Kamal’s feeling of being torn between the two sides of his heritage, and the sense of disconnect that he later feels as an adult are all very well but they’re nothing we haven’t seen countless times before. It’s a tired genre and not one in which Vassanji (or, I suspect, anyone else) has much that is new to say.

Vassanji’s biggest strength here is the sheer vastness of his canvas. Into the histories of Saida and Kamal’s families is woven a much wider story of East Africa, its trade ties with India, the historical importance of Kilwa, and various anticolonialist movements and other major events of the twentieth century. There are some brilliant shifts in style here too – including an entire section in which the colonisation by German forces is given the form of a religious fable, and another in which the relationship between a poet and his brother is transformed into a version of the Cain and Abel story.

Yet none of this is enough to make up for the very real weaknesses of this book. Saida herself is something of a MacGuffin; while the search for her supposedly informs the whole plot, the truth is rather anti-climactic. She never appears as a person but is relegated to the status of mystical plot device. Kamal, who is swept along by other people’s decisions throughout, isn’t much of a character either.

Then there’s the publisher to whom this is all being told. Kigoma’s name is mentioned just once, at the beginning of the book, yet he shows more evidence of personality than either of its protagonists. Here his only function is to comment on how moving Kamal Punja’s story is. If only his enthusiasm could convince the reader; this is very far from Vassanji’s strongest work.

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