TWO-TIME Giller Prize winner M.G. Vassanji's latest novel is an under-achievement considering the excellence of some of his previous, such as The Book of Secrets (1993) and the In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003).
The shell of The Magic of Saida is a straightforward quest. Kamal Punja, a well-to-do Edmonton doctor of African-Indian descent, returns to his birthplace in Tanzania to find his childhood girlfriend.
He promised to return, but married another woman and settled into a comfortable western life. Now divorced with grown children, Kamal sets out to find Saida, whom he hasn't seen since he left East Africa. The story contains an eerie echo of A.J. Cronin's 1961 novel The Judas Tree (1961).
Hanging new clothes on an old story is a common practice of storytellers and postmodernists alike. So are the adaptations of several more stories embraced in its shell, quite interesting in themselves.
Vassanji retells the story of Cain and Abel and of Judas, drawn from the Qur'an and recast here in the early 1900s.
The Toronto-based Vassanji also explains the colonial history of East Africa, particularly Tanzania, which was ruled first by Germans, then the British before it attained independence in the early 1960s.
This history is chronicled by Mzee Omari in "The Composition of the Coming of the Modern Age," inserted somewhat randomly throughout the first half of the novel.
Vassanji dedicates this book "to the poets of old," and by far the most interesting writing concerns Mzee Omari, described by an admiring young Kamal as "the town's poet and historian." The town is Kilwa, where his father left Kamal, and where Kamal leaves Saida.
The most memorable image of the historical Kilwa is the Hanging Mango Tree, used by two empires to hang Africans and Indians resisting colonial oppression.
Omari watches the brother he betrayed hang from this tree, and it is where he hangs himself, having finished his "Composition."
His guilt overpowers his belief that he was fulfilling his role as an observer giving a voice to his people, especially that of his warrior poet brother.
The tree is gone when the elder Kamal returns looking for Saida. He finds only a poorly scrawled plaque acknowledging the history of what is now a storied absence.
Kamal feels as guilty as sin. He betrayed Saida and feels he has betrayed his country because he left for Canada and an easier life rather than serving as a doctor in his birth country. But he is willing to blame his wife for the decision rather than take responsibility.
Vassanji's use of Kamal as protagonist is unsuccessful, particularly later in the novel, for a number of reasons. First, the older Kamal is a detached bore. Second, the story is often told by Kamal to an essentially absent listener.
Finally, there is no magic, however frequently invoked, to take Kamal's search for Saida out of the realm of nostalgia, guilt and hope of forgiveness.
Many lonely, older men are now telling such stories, including Julian Barnes in his Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending last year.
There will be more as this generation faces its mortality. It is time, perhaps, for women to tackle the subject.
Winnipeg writer Victor Enns' latest poetry collection is Boy from Regina's Hagios Press.
The Magic of Saida
By M.G. Vassanji
Doubleday Canada, 305 pages, $33