The Magic of Saida by M.G. Vassanji
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“Vassanji’s remarkable new novel is a magic trick that reveals how it’s performed while in process . . . As Kamal relates the colonial history, [it] amounts to the best sort of historical fiction . . . Vassanji has won Canada’s Giller Prize twice. This book also seems bound for glory.”—Michael Autrey, Booklist (starred)
Kamal Punja is a physician who has lived in Canada for the past forty years, but whom we first meet in a Tanzanian hospital. He is delirious and says he has been poisoned with hallucinogens. But when Kamal finds a curious and sympathetic ear in a local publisher, his ravings begin to reveal a tale of extraordinary pathos, complexity, and mystery.
Raised by his African mother, deserted when he was four by his Indian father, married to a woman of Indian heritage, and the father of two wholly Westernized children, Kamal had reached a stage of both undreamed-of material success and disintegrating personal ties. Then, suddenly, he “stepped off the treadmill, allowed an old regret to awaken,” and set off to find the girl he had known as a child, to finally keep his promise to her that he would return.
The girl was Saida, granddaughter of a great, beloved Swahili poet. Kamal and Saida were constant companions—he teaching her English and arithmetic, she teaching him Arabic script and Swahili poetry—and in his child’s mind, she was his future wife. Until, when he was eleven, his mother sent him to the capital, Dar es Salaam, to live with his father’s relatives, to “become an Indian” and thus secure his future. Now Kamal is journeying back to the village he left, into the maze of his long-unresolved mixed-race identity and the nightmarish legacy of his broken promise to Saida.
At once dramatic, searching, and intelligent, The Magic of Saida moves deftly between the past and present, painting both an intimate picture of passion and betrayal and a broad canvas of political promise and failure in contemporary Africa. It is a timeless story—and a story very much of our own time.
Praise for The Magic of Saida
“An ambitious, passionate work about racial identity, deracination, and the unsolvable mysteries of the human heart . . . The retro echoes of Graham Greene and W. Somerset Maugham play with readers’ expectations in this decidedly contemporary African novel . . . Vassanji employs dense but splintered prose to mirror the dense but splintered identity of his multicultural/multiethnic protagonist.”—Kirkus Reviews
“It’s a bravura performance, but subtle and understated. Vassanji isn’t a bombastic writer; his prose is rich, but never distracting, multifaceted, but never simply beautiful for its own sake . . . [The novel’s frame] allows for fluid, non-linear storytelling that brings the past and the present, the recounted and the shown, the pedestrian and the magical, into a crystalline narrative immediacy . . . The Magic of Saida is an expansive, inclusive work, incorporating a capsule history of east Africa; an account of religious conflict; a chronicle of emigration and dislocation; and a vivid examination of contemporary life in Tanzania. All of which could make for a daunting, even prohibitive read, were Vassanji not so deft a writer. In his hands, the material of encyclopedias and nonfiction tomes becomes the vital particulars of life. At its heart, The Magic of Saida is a mystery novel, the question of what happened to Saida in the past and where she is the present guiding the narrative through its turns and weaves. When those questions are answered—finally and elliptically—the novel snaps into place with a resounding, heartbreaking clarity . . . The Magic of Saida is the sort of novel that, upon finishing, one wants to immediately read again, to examine, to study just how Vassanji works his narrative magic, and to allow oneself to savour it just that little bit longer.”—Robert J. Wiersema, Globe and Mail
M.G. Vassanji is the author of six acclaimed novels: The Gunny Sack, which won the regional Commonwealth Prize; No New Land; The Book of Secrets, which won the very first Giller Prize; Amriika; The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, which also won the Giller Prize, and The Assassin’s Song, which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. He is also the author of two collections of short fiction, Uhuru Street and When She Was Queen, and a work of non-fiction, A Place Within: Rediscovering India. He lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.
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