Monday, September 20, 2004

Ethnic Conflict in Kenya: M.G. Vassanji's new novel

There's a positive review of M.G. Vassanji's latest novel, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, in the September 18 Guardian. Vassanji is one of the lesser-known Indo-African/Canadian writers, but he has written consistently good novels on unique subjects. Of the books of Vassanji's I've read, my favorite has been No New Land, which is about the life of Indo-African immigrants in Canada.

Go to the actual review for a plot summary of The In-Between World. Briefly, the book is about an Indian merchant who attempts to survive -- and more than survive -- the black/nationalist Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya between 1952 and 1960.

Reviewer Helon Habila's comment on the novel's version of Kenyan history is interesting:

The book is about survival, political and personal. Vikram becomes the middleman, the moneychanger, the fixer, to ensure his place and his family's in the new Kenya. The British, to ensure the survival of their legacy, installed the new leaders - men not necessarily of the best quality, but reliable because of their greed and contempt for the people - as buffers against the rising tide of Marxism/socialism that had overrun neighbouring Tanzania. Sometimes Vassanji's image of the corrupt African politician - lugging a suitcase full of cash - verges on cliché, but his use of real political figures is daring.

Vassanji deliberately blurs the line between victim and victimiser. The new African elite suddenly begin to act more and more like their British predecessors. The Mau Mau freedom fighters who gave up everything to fight the colonialists are now hounded on the streets and arrested for the flimsiest reasons. The same colonial policemen and their African collaborators who tortured the Mau Mau and other blacks during the emergency are still in office as security advisers for the new ruling class.

Postcolonial history is always more complicated than simple accounts allow. There is no authentic Africa or India, untouched by colonial ideas of power; 'free' states are not always so free.

And there are very few people with their hands clean. As much as they were victimized in places like Uganda (when Idi Amin ejected all people of Indian descent in the early 1970s), Indians in east Africa were earlier the beneficiaries of a corrupt colonial system. Vassanji is sensitive to this role; apparently the narrator/ protagonist of the novel, who eventually leaves Kenya, describes himself as "one of Africa's most corrupt men."


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