Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Assassin's Song

M.G. Vassanji writes daunting books. Excellent, prize-winning, beautifully written books. But daunting. Even his biography is daunting - complex and byzantine [South Asian ethnoculturally, born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania, went to MIT in Boston, received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in theoretical nuclear physics, moved to Canada as a postdoctoral fellow at Atomic Energy of Canada, became a research associate at the University of Toronto. Began writing and soon enough was a best-selling writer and the first two-time winner of the Giller Prize!]

MGV was in Edmonton this week, reading from his latest critically-acclaimed, Giller-nominated novel: The Assassin's Song. St. Albert library patrons are not daunted - there are many holds on the many copies of his new book. But just looking at the short review from The New Yorker (August 20, 2007) exhausts me:
This resplendent novel traces the path of Karsan Dargawalla, who is brought up, as generations of his forefathers have been, to be the "gaadi-varas, the successor and avatar" of a seven-hundred-year-old Sufi shrine in Gujarat, a mausoleum of Muslim origin but for centuries open to all religions. Karsan, rebelling against "the iron bonds of history," leaves for Boston and Canada, though he ultimately returns to India to "research, recall, and write about" his abandoned heritage. Vassanji eloquently details the sufferings of Karsan's family as the price of his individual freedom, but suggests that this abandonment was necessary, and that tradition, in the face of India's "ancient animosities," must be engaged with critically and in the context of the wider world.
Okay, let's parse:
  • "brought up, as generations of his forefathers have been" - the dead weight of history, generations of pressure to choose the same career as Dad? Depressing! And that career is being a "gaadi-varas"? An "avatar" apparently, and not the avatar one creates when you are playing a video game. Quick wiki glimpse: in Hindu philosophy an avatar refers to the incarnation of a higher being onto planet Earth. So poor Karsan's hereditary job is as the physical incarnation of a god?!
  • "Sufi shrine" - Sufis are the Islamic sect known for their mysticism and their poetry. Moderates I think. But minorities everywhere. And it is in Gujarat, which is an area of India where Gandhi is from. And I would guess Hindus are the majority, with Muslims the minority, and perhaps the Sufis a minority of this minority.
Alright, the rest seems straightforward - not surprisingly our Karsan isn't keen on being an avatar and escapes to America, but one assumes he is filled with the regrets of anyone leaving their family and culture behind. So, perhaps, not as daunting as I fear. Perhaps I shall join the smart readers of St. Albert and request this "resplendent novel."

[**Update September 24 - Todd Babiak has an interview with MGV in his Sunday Edmonton Journal column here.]


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home