The Magic of Saida
- M.G. Vassanji
- Alfred A. Knopf
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Susi Wyss
- March 27, 2013
A past love and broken promise triggers a physician’s intense search for identity.
Read our interview with the author.
As with M.G. Vassanji’s six previous novels, his newest offering, The Magic of Saida, draws from the author’s background as an East African-born Indian who immigrated to Canada as a young adult. Whereas Vassanji worked as a physicist prior to turning to full-time writing, his latest protagonist, Kamal Punja, is a physician, the son of a Tanzanian woman and an absent Indian father descended from Indian immigrants.
Kamal has been living in Canada for 35 years, married and raising two children, when he “allowed an old regret to awaken” and returns to Tanzania to find out what happened tohis childhood playmate and adolescent love, Saida. But his mission goes deeper than realizing a long-ago promise to return to Saida, or possibly rekindling an old flame. Kamal’s midlife crisis is one of identity: how can he reconcile his African, Indian and Canadian selves?
The Magic of Saida is as ambitious and sprawling as it is compelling, opening with a Tanzanian publisher, Martin Kigoma, who meets Kamal as he lies in a hospital in Dar es Salaam recovering from a mysterious case of poisoning and hallucinations. The rest of the book is a retelling, by the publisher, of Kamal’s story. It spans his childhood years in a town in Tanzania with his mother, Saida and Saida’s grandfather, the renowned poet Omari bin Tamim.
The novel then segues into the story of Kamal’s ancestor, who leaves India to seek his fortune in Tanzania, meets Omari and eventually supports the Tanzanian independence movement with tragic results. Kamal is eventually sent by his mother to Dar to be raised as an Indian by his father’s relatives, but because he is half African, he never fully fits in with the Indian community. Nor does he belong in Saida’s world anymore — they are as star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet. Still, Kamal continues to love her, even as he continues his final transformation into a Canadian-based doctor, husband and father.
Vassanji’s storytelling is sophisticated, jumping back and forth in time, and deftly handling the story-within-a-story point of view. For those readers who want only to know what happened to Saida, the seemingly tangential stories of Kamal’s ancestor and the Maji Maji War may frustrate, but they are essential to understanding Kamal’s struggle with his identity. Fortunately, Vassanji avoids easy, politically correct generalizations. His colonialists are multidimensional, he looks at racism among Indians square in the eye, and he does not absolve Africans for their own exploitation and abuse of other Africans.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is the intriguing and unforgettable cast of characters. In addition to Saida and the heroes and poets of Kamal’s childhood, three men play essential roles by not only helping Kamal’s search but also serving as effective foils to his character. First, there is the publisher Kigoma, who at one point had the same teacher as Kamal — a teacher who tried unsuccessfully to convince Kamal to become a man of letters. If Kamal had listened to his teacher, the reader (and Kamal) can’t help but wonder, would his life have ended up like Kigoma’s? Next, there is Dr. Navroz Engineer, an Indian who is ministering to the sick in Kamal’s home town. If Kamal had returned to Saida after his training as a doctor, would his life have resembled Engineer’s? And lastly, there is Ed Markham, a Scot who has lived most of his life in Tanzania andmanages the hotel where Kamal stays. As a white man who has spent his adult life in Africa, he is Kamal’s antithesis, and for that reason Kamal finally identifies with him: “despite his initial hostility he had been gradually drawn to the man, because he could understand his loneliness.”
Through these character foils and Kamal’s identity crisis, Vassanji raises more questions than he answers. “Is a child growing up here [in Tanzania] less happy than one in Edmonton or Toronto costing tens of thousands more per year to maintain?” Kamal wonders. “Did I gain or lose by being sent away?” Referring to the difference in life expectancies between Tanzania and Canada, Kamal asks, “were those extra twenty years of life — averagely speaking — worth it?” These are the type of who-am-I and what-might-have-been questions that are by their very nature impossible to answer — and yet, thanks to human nature, it is just as impossible to refrain from asking them. Even as Vassanji solves the question of what happened to Saida, Kamal’s other questions remain unanswered. By the end of the novel, we can only hope that his character — and, possibly, the author as well — has learned to live with these haunting questions.
Susi Wyss is the author of The Civilized World, a book of fiction set across Africa that was largely inspired by her 20-year career in international health. In addition to receiving the Maria Thomas Fiction Award, The Civilized World was named a “Book to Pick Up Now” by O, the Oprah Magazine.