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M. G. Vassanji

Author of The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

23+ Works 1,992 Members 67 Reviews 5 Favorited

About the Author

M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania. Before coming to Canada in 1978, he attended M.I.T., and later was writer in residence at the University of Iowa. Vassanji is the author of four acclaimed novels: The Gunny Sack (1989), which won a regional Commonwealth Prize; No New Land show more (1991); The Book of Secrets (1994), which won the very first Giller Prize; and Amriika (1999). He was awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize in 1994 in recognition of his achievement in and contribution to the world of letters, and was in the same year chosen as one of twelve Canadians on Maclean’s Honour Roll. show less
Image credit: Denise Grant

Works by M. G. Vassanji

Associated Works

Four Letter Word: New Love Letters (2007) — Contributor — 136 copies
Story-Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers (2004) — Contributor — 100 copies
Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories (1992) — Contributor — 57 copies

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The novel begins in 1971. Nurul Islam is a world-renowned physicist from Pakistan living and working in London. He is happily married to Sakina Begum with whom he has three children. His life changes when he travels to the U.S. to give a lecture at Harvard. He meets Hilary Chase, a graduate student, and falls in love. But it is not just this new relationship that threatens his world. He is accused of plagiarism. Then his comments about the nature of physics and God attract the attention and ire of fundamentalist Muslims. And he makes enemies of Pakistani government and military leaders because of his opposition to the development of a nuclear bomb. This is the story of a man facing forces that threaten all that he has worked to achieve.

This is very much a character study of a man who “resolved to be as good and devout a man as he could” but is definitely flawed. He comes “from a backward place called Pirmai in Pakistan” but because of his intelligence and hard work, achieves great success. When he “got the best matriculation result ever in the whole of Punjab,” his entire community celebrates. He becomes in fact the pride of his nation and becomes accustomed to adulation: “Young people from South Asia normally came in his presence to touch his feet, out of gratitude and respect.” Even his name which means Light of Islam proclaims his specialness.

It is not surprising that the word pride appears a dozen times; arrogance is also repeated. Certainly, he behaves arrogantly at times; he is often dismissive of students, touting his accomplishments versus theirs at the same age. Sakina warns him, “’Too much thinking about these matters is not good. It is pride itself.’” Nurul understands she is warning him about being like Azazel, considered to be amongst the nearest to God’s throne, but because he sinned through pride, he became a devil. Nurul does question whether he was “simply callous and greedy for glory” and he tells his father, “’Life at the top of . . . one’s field . . . causes a lot of uncertainty and competitiveness – hassad. There is a word in English, hubris- . . . It means a certain kind of pride, a feeling of infallibility . . . I sometimes think I have it.’” Even his wife mentions his arrogance in believing that “’Nothing could happen to him.’” Nurul certainly pays a high price for his thinking he is somehow above others and untouchable.

It is impossible, however, not to feel sympathy for Nurul. He has been gifted from childhood but “’a gift is also a burden – of responsibility.’” He admits, “He could not forget, of course, that he was the only living Muslim scientist of note. That was a matter of pride but also a burden.” He would like the Nobel Prize for himself “but the Nobel was one gift he could give to his mother and father, to his country, and of course to his small beleaguered Shirazi sect.” He is insecure; he has a dream which he describes as terrifying where eminent scientists laugh at him and he wakes up with the fear that he’s not one of the best. He worries that at forty he is getting old and losing his mental agility so it’s too late to make any significant discoveries.

A character who particularly interested me is Sakina. She had no choice in marrying Nurul; theirs was an arranged marriage. She is unschooled, “removed from school after grade six,” and then Nurul brings her to England where she has to learn the language and culture. She admits to herself that “she would have preferred a simpler, less gifted man; that would have been better for them both. And with a large family around her, in surroundings she knew well, she would not have been lonely. She would have had no apprehension about talking to people, speaking like the others, dressing like them.” And she is definitely lonely: “She had no one to talk to, to express . . . anxieties. Here in London you dared not show any cracks in your exterior.” Then when she returns to visit Pakistan, she is “treated as an honoured and fortunate guest, an ‘England-returned,’ who lived well . . . what concerns could she have?” She feels a “’faariner.’ Pardesi. Everywhere.”

Of course, she is not the only one who is different. Nurul “was different in every way: an Asian Muslim in a white country, a devout Muslim scientist among mostly atheist or agnostic colleagues of Jewish and Christian backgrounds, a persecuted minority in his own country.” And then there’s Hilary, one of the few women scientists.

This is not a plot-driven novel. The story also unfolds slowly. But those who love a novel of character will love this one. I certainly did. And that closing sentence is absolutely perfect!

Note: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Please check out my reader's blog (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski).
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Schatje | Sep 14, 2023 |
M.G. Vassanji's collection of short stories, Uhuru Street, provides great insight into the domestic life of the Indian diaspora in Dar Es Salaam. The book focuses mostly on the lives of people gathered around a small shop located on Uhuru Street.

The book is similar to V.S. Naipul's Miguel Street in that both tell about the Indian diaspora in colonies far from Great Britain. Both books deal with a few bawdy characters and have coming-of-age scenarios.

Uhuru Street is easy to read. The stories are quick but related. Of most interest to me was the interaction between the Indian and Black communities. I just wish there was more depth in those interactions.… (more)
 
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mvblair | Apr 13, 2023 |
The Assassin's Song by M G Vassanji was beautiful, sad, touching, and full of yearning. It was brought to life by narrator Firdous Bamji. All this while giving a history lesson. I learned much more about the Pakistan-Indian conflict than watching the nightly news.
 
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nab6215 | 9 other reviews | Jan 18, 2022 |
Vassanji's novel, The Book of Secrets, which was the recipient of the first Giller Prize, is a complex saga revolving around a diary kept by an Assistant District Commissioner in the fictitious town of Kikono, situated near the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, set around the time of WWI.

The diary isn't so much a book of secrets. Rather, it is the secrets which are kept by the people associated with the diary, and the tragedy their secrets foment.

The writing is spare, what might be termed lean, yet it is that spare quality which lends a sense of penury and pain to the narrative. This is not a story of happy endings. This is a story about madness and compulsion, about the very worst of human nature, and into that darkness Vassanji creates a twisting, sometimes confusing narrative which flows from person to person as the diary is handed off, sometimes part of an occult shrine, sometimes forgotten and later unearthed to the surprise and sorrow of the next generation.

There are conversations in the narrative which are never spoken (secrets), and there are prejudices held and never revealed (more secrets), and crimes committed and entombed in memory (yet even more secrets). Layers upon layers of misery.

Not for the faint of heart. Not an easy read. Not a lazy afternoon in the hammock kind of fiction. But it is worth your time and attention.
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fiverivers | 9 other reviews | Oct 19, 2021 |

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