Journey to a Soul

By Reviewed by Rabindranath Maharaj
Sunday, August 19, 2007


By M.G. Vassanji

Knopf. 314 pp. $25

Readers who begin The Assassin's Song expecting an exploration of terrorism will be disappointed. M.G. Vassanji's new novel deals with that subject only obliquely and in connection with its larger theme: how seemingly random events can shape our destinies. As in his previous novels, two of which have won Canada's Giller Prize ( The Book of Secrets, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall), Vassanji is concerned here with the clash between tradition and modernity and the unseating of familiar assumptions.

At the novel's center is Karsan, who dreams of escaping his ancestral obligation to be the custodian of a Sufi shrine in rural India. Most of the early tension comes from Karsan's growing self-awareness, which puts him at cross-purposes with his father, who is single-minded in his service to the shrine. Karsan's dream of an ordinary life finds nourishment in the magical stories of the outside world related by a lorry driver, whose truck is appropriately named Kaleidoscope.

The novel unfolds gracefully, with interlaced descriptions that cut across the centuries and emphasize both the importance of the shrine as a neutral retreat and the father's intractability. The son senses that the father is transferring to him all his fears and expectations -- made more stark by communal tensions rumbling in the background -- which adds to the sons's frustration with his assigned role.

Unexpectedly, Karsan gets an opportunity to escape via a scholarship to Harvard. Initially, his time abroad is filled with cultural awkwardness and nostalgia, but eventually he achieves the immigrant dream of success. He lands a professorship in British Columbia, where he marries an old acquaintance. The marriage produces a son. A typical immigrant novel would probably end at this point, with its protagonist's material achievements balanced by cultural losses, but Vassanji's purpose here is more ambitious and intricate. Karsan must now connect the dots.

Revelations arrive in small installments. He discovers a troubling duality in his new life: Even though he has overcome his fear of the larger world, he begins to acknowledge his heritage in other ways (such as his affection for the mystical poetry of Blake and Yeats and Donne, which speaks to what he calls his "Indian mind"). Now the book shifts into a slightly melancholic tone, and there is a sense of inevitability about the twin tragedies that finally take place. As Karsan begins to reclaim his heritage, rather surprisingly he reverts to a peculiarly Indian way of thinking he had once shunned, namely the belief in karma and the inevitability of things. "What perfect, terrible karmic symmetry I had called upon myself," he reflects. Although some readers might be dismayed by this perfect circle, Vassanji infuses poignancy into Karsan's recognition that, after all his struggles, he has become a version of his father.

At times the book falters a bit, however: David, a Christian teacher, outlasts his importance to the narrative, and the unraveling of Karsan's domestic life toward the end feels a bit rushed. But the book is thought-provoking and satisfying in every other respect. There are echoes of Rohinton Mistry in Vassanji's lampooning of post-independent India's frenetic nationalism, of V.S. Naipaul in the insistence that solutions can arrive only from a thorough understanding of the past, of Salman Rushdie in the disclosure of a history composed of personal narratives and myths. But the quiet lyricism of Karsan's contemplations, the careful evocation of place, the writer's obvious warmth for his characters, the sense of compassion layered into the story -- these are all Vassanji's.

Vassanji is first and foremost a storyteller. There are no passages of poetic flourishes, and a reader might pause here and there, not to admire the language but to absorb a simple truth, simply stated. The book is filled with instances of these, from the start, when Karsan reflects on the elusive nature of his heritage, to the end, when he begins to decipher the random sequence of events and poses the question: "Do we always end up where we really belong?"

The Assassin's Song is a cautionary tale about the division of the world into zealous little factions with a few places -- such as the Sufi shrine -- in the middle. Even these places are under threat by extremists enraged by the neutrality they represent. Early in the novel, the youthful Karsan realizes that his questioning of traditions, his curiosity about history and his glimpses of the outside world had saved him from the rage that had taken hold of his younger brother. In the end, he deciphers his true role only after journeying to the outside world. ยท

Rabindranath Maharaj is the author, most recently, of "A Perfect Pledge."

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