The Book Of Secrets by M.G. Vassanji
Picador USA, New York, 1994
Borrowed from the library.
The Book of Secrets is all about the importance of writing, family and secrets in the understanding of history. At its center is a love story. Actually, several love stories.
The novel takes place in colonial East Africa, specifically the countries now known as Kenya and Tanzania. It is a tale of immigration and colonization. During the late 1800s and early 1900s this part of Africa developed a rich mix of African, Indian, Arab and English cultures.
A retired, Indian school teacher, Pius Fernandes, is given a diary written by a British administrator, Alfred Corbin. The diary was found in hidden in the storeroom of a shop. It peaks Pius’s interest, engages his curiosity and opens up unknown windows to his past. Who hid the diary? Why did they hide it? What story is contained in its pages?
I love the way Vassanji moves about in time, never drawing direct connections, but using subtle hints entwining the past in the future. It is all very personal, yet touches on the history of colonial East Africa, the influence of Germany and the British empire, the World Wars, and the influx of people from India and other countries. The language, vivid and lyrical, brings the landscape, the towns, the cities, and the people to life. Vassanji’s characters are perfectly pitched, the interconnections unexpected and magical.
The British administrator: “He had read accounts of the explorers, the great travellers, read reports of their lectures, including one at the Geographical Society of Hamburg given by Krapf. As a boy in England he might have heard Stanley. Didn’t they ever spend sleepless nights, these men, or waver from their purpose? Maynard, the seemingly indomitable Maynard, who had stalked the length and breadth of the country subduing intransigent natives, had confessed to him to bouts of sleeplessness, depression, doubt, taking to his diary to kill time and tire the brain, taking a local women to kill loneliness. And also he had admitted to the snapping of nerves, an outbreak of savagery.” from page 53.
Pius Fernandes as he searches for answers to his questions: “I have not felt so alone, so away, in years. The last time was when I first came to Africa, long ago. Outside, the music still plays. Downstairs, in the lobby two men talk earnestly in the bar, their voices carry clearly and without inhibition. There comes the sound of water, from somewhere. Young Jamali sleeps in the adjoining room. So many times in the past few weeks I have seen this town, this area, in my mind as it must have been eighty, ninety years ago; imagined thousands of troops and animals on the march across the dry land, digging in battle lines, relinquishing them; the guns firing, the bayonets thrusting; the disease and thirst and death. Now to be here…the feeling is eerie, unreal” From page 175.
There are multiple layers of history in this novel, both personal and political. I thoroughly enjoyed it and plan on reading Vassanji’s other work. The Book of Secrets was awarded the Giller prize in 1994. Vassanji won the prize again in 2003 for his novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.
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