The Other Africans
While Vikram has sought refuge in "clement" Canada, his new country seems to barely impinge on his consciousness, intent as he is on recording his past in a distant, dangerous land. Vassanji belongs to a distinguished group of foreign-born Canadian writers, notably Bombay-born Rohinton Mistry and Sri Lanka-born Michael Ondaatje, who use their new country as a sort of parking lot. Unlike Monica Ali and Zadie Smith, whose novels take place in bustling London immigrant neighborhoods, and unlike Jhumpa Lahiri, whose stories unfold in suburban South Asian American homes, Canada's multicultural writers prefer to train their visions back on their abandoned homes.
The lens through which Vassanji views his native land is certainly sharper than Naipaul's gloomy vision of postcolonial African malaise. Africa, through Naipaul's despairingly sinister glasses, is a "stinking, rotting" caricature of a Third World hellhole, a continent best visited briefly before summarily (and quite literally) writing it off. On the other hand, Vassanji's Africa is a more nuanced terrain, an inhabited space, where the baggage of history jostles with the actions--or passivity--of its inhabitants, and where hope, generosity and personal responsibility wrestle with despair, greed and corruption.
But Vassanji is by no means an apologist for Africa or its Asian community. Like Naipaul, he is adept at tearing the skin of corruption to reveal its bloody, hidden entrails. While Naipaul's Salim is driven to smuggling ivory and gold in a thinly veiled Zaire traumatized by the mad political ambitions of The Big Man, or Mobutu Sese Seko, Vikram too finds himself spiraling into corruption to satisfy Kenyatta's growing greed. But, unlike Naipaul's African novels set in unidentified countries and ruled by unnamed dictators,Vassanji's stories are rooted in a specific historical context. And he's also not afraid to point fingers at Africa's formidable statesmen. In The Book of Secrets Nyerere makes an appearance as the vaguely sinister Mwalimu, or "teacher" in Swahili. In The In-Between World Vassanji goes one step further and includes Kenyatta as a character, an imposing leader who doles out privileges in exchange for lavish gifts and infusions into personal bank accounts.
If there's one thing lacking in The In-Between World, it's a moral stance, something Vassanji shares with his protagonist. With Vikram as his narrator, Vassanji seems to be a writer in complete control of his material: self-possessed, steady and dispassionate. But the book suffers at times from its reluctance to issue any kind of historical judgment, and one begins to long for some of Naipaul's withering pronouncements. Does Vassanji view the Mau Mau as freedom fighters or coldblooded killers? Are East Africa's Asians collaborators or victims? Was Kenya better or worse off under the British? Vassanji prefers to leave these judgments to his readers. Ultimately, this might be a good thing, despite--or perhaps because of--the sense of irresolution it produces. In these days of good versus evil, of coalitions of willing allies pitted against axes of evil, Naipaul's dependable "hard truths" about the Third World enjoy an understandable currency in the West. But Vassanji's keen grasp of the murkiness of colonial warfare offers a more instructive guide to our troubled times.