Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review of The Book of Secrets

This is book that folks looking for good fiction about East Africa ought to read.
The Book of Secrets  by M.G. Vassanji, Picador, NY 1994

This is a superb novel by M.G. Vassanji that is set in Kenya and Tanzania beginning just before World War I.  The basic plot revolves around a diary kept by colonial administrator Alfred Corbin in the small (fictitious) Indian trading town of Kikono located at the foot of the Taita Hills along a track that would become the road and railroad between Voi and Taveta.  No one knew what Corbin recorded so assiduously in his diary, but they presumed it included information on the townsfolk as well as the mysteries of imperial power.   In any case, the diary first appears, then disappears and is re-found. It provides the skeleton for the story to hang on.

The story really is one of relationships.  The re-discoverer of the book of secrets was a retired Goan school teacher in Dar Es Salaam in the nineteen sixties.  As narrator he then retraces life as it was in Kikono before the great war when Corbin assumed his duties and was quizzically observed by the townsfolk who the author called Shamsis (which is an actual Islamic sect), but who seemed to me to be Ismailis, traders well known in East Africa. Corbin’s concerns for an unconventional girl and whether or not he fathered her child is the basic mystery that is unpeeled in various fashions during the course of the story.

The Great War disrupted the town. Corbin was withdrawn. His diary was stolen.  People from the town and their descendents moved to Moshi, Dar and Europe, yet their connections to one another and to the essential mystery remained vague even as some unraveled and others faded.

The Book of Secrets is a wonderfully told tale. Descriptions are vivid. The landscapes, the towns, cities and historical events are accurately portrayed, but the characters are especially memorable.  They are exactly the sort of people that would inhabit this world.

Obviously, I enjoyed this book. The East Africa setting is realistic (including the Cozy Café in Dar that I patronized in 1966). Besides being a good story, the book is a valuable social history, particularly with regard to the changes experienced by Asian communities in East Africa.  Read it!

No comments: