Saturday, 22 November 2008

the book of secrets [w. M G Vassanji]

The Book of Secrets, set in Tanzania, spans the best part of the twentieth century. The book of secrets itself appears to be a diary, written by a British colonial officer, Corbin, during his time as the colonial overseer in the backwoods town of Kikono, in the lead up to the first world war. The diary appears to be fairly innocuous, apart from the suggestion of a possible affair with a local woman, Miriamiu, whose husband accuses her of not being a virgin on her wedding night. Miriamiu's son is a pale skinned boy who ends up becoming wealthy and traveling to England. The book suggests that the colonial official and his possible son met and might possibly have possibly broached the subject of paternity, or might not have done.

Vassanji's narrator is Pius Fernandes, a schoolteacher in Dar Es Salaam, who is given the diary, which has survived through the century, and who takes on responsiblity for investigating its origins. This narrator recounts the various stories of the people who may or may not have been connected to the diary. These are a varied bunch, from Corbin to the son, Ali, to the woman Ali later runs off to England with, to the English poet who makes Dar Es Salaam his home. The narrative meanders across the years, and has a knack of engaging the reader in a particular character only to let that character's storyline drift out of the narrative as it moves on to the next. As a result, it feels as though the reader is continually restarting the project of the book and the quest for the true significance of the Book of Secrets. This particular reader never really got to the bottom of the diary's significance - it felt like something of a Maguffin around which Vassanji could embroider his knowledge of Tanzania, past and present, and the diverse communities that inhabited the country. 

The diary and Pius's mission to discover its secrets insinuates both the idea of a dramatic resolution to the book as well as some kind of key to the recent history of Tanzania. As it becomes clear that the book will not deliver on its insinuation, the reader has two courses of action. One is to become a little frustrated with a literal pretentiousness (understanding that word to mean an undelivered pretension to communicate something which is, in the end, never communicated); and secondly to enjoy the ramblingly assembled portrait of a faintly idyllic part of the world.  

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