This is a slightly longer version of a review that appeared in Time Out Mumbai / Delhi.
MG Vassanji, The Assassin’s Song
Viking Penguin 2007: 371 pp.
This is a novel that investigates the idea of tradition as responsibility, asking the question, how might such a debt be fulfilled? Karsan Dargawalla, the narrator of The Assassin’s Song is the direct descendant of a mysterious 12th century pir but is doubtful of his powers. The sufi shrine his father presides over is destroyed and ransacked in 2002, his revered father murdered. At this time, where the book begins, Karsan has long renounced his right to be the Saheb of Pirbaag and is living an alternate life half way across the world, but he has to return.
Vassanji is an author who deserves to be better known. If his first (lovely) novel, The Gunny Sack (“Africa’s answer to Midnight’s Children”) in 1990 was, in many ways imitative of Rushdie, he has developed, over the course of eight books of fiction, a very different style all his own. This late prose style is more mature, subtle, tender and dexterous in Assasin’s Song than ever before. Nevertheless, the new novel seems to lack the depth and complexity of insight, not to mention the dark and disturbing tones, that one found in his best book, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. Vikram Lall appeared to draw deeply if obliquely on Vassanji’s memory of his growing up years in Africa, and spoke with searing honesty and deep contradictions.
By contrast, the pegging of The Assassin’s Song on the Gujarat riots is a device that, in its very topicality, threatens at every turn to be the novel’s downfall. The first half is full of cutout characters, representatives of every community—Karsan’s brother who later turns a bitter, narrow-minded Islamist, the Siddhi sports teacher converted to Christianity, the Jew—all playing out some pre-Godhra-like version of communal interdependence, even if violence does always shadow this delicate cultural ecology. The plot feels willfully stitched together; the interleaved sections of medieval mythic sufi history do not seem deeply felt and end up reading like “history lite”. Nevertheless, it is a testament to Vassanji’s skill, empathies and patient working through that he slowly turns this potentially epic disaster around, into a good book that one begins to care about. He does this by attention to intimate detail, and by returning to what, for him, is familiar territory: the insecure, mildly heartbreaking and sometimes epiphanic growing-up years of a sensitive, slightly confused young man. This is a story that, in some ways, Vassanji has been telling over and over again, but he can do it extremely well.