Thursday, October 18, 2007

Review: M.G. Vassanji's "The Assassin's Song"

Ray Taras, who covers contemporary world literature for the blog, reviews the latest novel by M.G. Vassanji, The Assassin's Song:
The teleological question at the heart of Toronto-based novelist M.G. Vassanji's latest novel is explicitly posed a few pages from its conclusion: "Do we always end up where we really belong?" (p. 311). In an age contriving to celebrate the Promethean dimension to each of us, when the ideas of roots, belonging, a station in life, and religious inheritance that shape an individual's future are discredited, this is no banal question.

The story takes the reader from a fictitious thirteenth-century village in what was to become the modern Indian state of Gujarat, to Harvard Yard of the late 1960s, then British Columbia in the 1980s, and back again to the shrine of Pirbaag in the Gujarati town of Haripir in 2002, when bloody communal riots put a brutal end to seven centuries of religious ecumenism. Karsan, next in line after his father to be Saheb of the shrine, is uneasy about becoming god to the worshipers -- Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, mystic -- who come here. As a child he admires his illiterate mother's secret visits, her identity hidden from view in a burqa, to the movie house. His greatest regret as a young boy is that his destiny as next Saheb will not allow his father to give him permission to take up a promising career in cricket. He tries to be his errant brother's keeper, though it is Mansoor that eventually answers the call to a religious vocation, becoming a Muslim who associates with Islamic "defense committees" in the region. One day Karsan sends off an application to Harvard, convinced nothing will come of it, and to his surprise he is accepted. He is able to make a natural break with Bapu-ji, his father who has been suffocating him with paternal love and ambition.

The relationship between father -- in fact god to many of his devotees, including Gujarati communities in North America that Karsan stumbles across -- and son is like an intensely-contested chess match, each moving a piece after calculating what the chessboard will look like three or four moves later. Each asserts a moral claim on the high ground. But it is clearly god's position that cannot be refuted. Personal tragedies befall both the protagonists, but they are not necessarily drawn closer by them. They are separated by a continent or two and Karsan refuses to visit home under any circumstances -- until the communal killings of 2002 force him back to the renamed Haripur (more Hindi-sounding than Haripir).

Vassanji's story is set in locations very different from several of his earlier novels, including the award-winning Gunny Sack (1989) and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003). These vividly described East Africa during British colonial rule and after. After all, Vassanji was born in Kenya and educated in Tanzania and is usually regarded as an African writer. Vikram Lall lyrically evokes Dar es Salamm -- an authentic, rollicking multicultural mosaic -- like few novels before it. It is a testament to the author's literary versatility that he now just as effectively evokes village life in India, with its religious, caste, class, and ethnic complexity.

In Cambridge and Burnaby, Karsan occasionally engages in a self-parody of the Indian immigrant in a white man's world. It comes as no surprise that he is attracted to Marge, a stereotypical late Sixties' hippie but with a difference -- her father is from India. The love story that describes the circuitous route that brings the two together is poignant and filled with melancholy. It is a welcome relief from the hardnosed contest Karsan is locked in with his father.

Then comes fatherhood and another existential question: "Was I afraid my son would grow up to reject me and the world I had given him?" (p. 244). It is resolved in an unexpected way.

If these relationships are the crux of the novel, why the title The Assassin's Song? We need to wait to the last chapters to discover that the original founder of the peaceful shrine of Pirbaag was a Sufi mystic who probably had been a member of the medieval Muslim sect of the Assassins, fleeing from the murderous armies of the Mongol Khan. At Pirbaag around 1260 the mystic had forged mutual respect and understanding between Muslim mullahs and Hindu Brahmins, a pact that was shattered with finality only in our time, in 2002. The reference to the assassins' sect is tantalizing and could have led to another hundred pages of riveting reading if Vassanji had chosen to do so.

The Assassin's Song has been shortlisted this fall for one of Canada's top literary awards, the Giller Prize, which Vassanji has won twice before. Is it that he has few other serious Canadian competitors? Hardly, when we note that Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, and Rohinton Mistry have been some of the other winners. If, on November 6, Vassanji were to be recognized a third time, it may confirm his status as one of the very best writers of fiction in a country that today represents the avant-garde of English-language literature.--Ray Taras
Read an excerpt from The Assassin's Song.

Ray Taras, professor of political science at Tulane University and director of its World Literature program for the past three years, is the author of a forthcoming book on xenophobias in old and new Europe. His most recently contribution to the blog is an interview with Matthew Brzezinski.

He has reviewed the following fiction for the blog:
3 Works by Dorota Masłowska
Andreï Makine's L’amour humain
Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island
Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog
Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide

Taras has also reviewed nonfiction on the blog:
Andreï Makine, Cette France qu’on oublie d’aimer
Andrei S. Markovits' Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America

--Marshal Zeringue