The Book of Secrets (Vassanji)

The Book of Secrets - M.G. Vassanji

East Africa - specifically the borderlands of Kenya (British East Africa) and northern Tanganyika/Tanzania (German East Africa) is the setting of this story by M.G. Vassanji, now Canadian but born in that place within the significant subculture of Indian origin. So already you can see, though actual Canadian content consists only of scattered references to Canada as a destination for emigration, that this is a very Canadian book in its fascination with the interaction of cultures. There's a very necessary glossary in the back, in which Swahili and Indian words are intermingled.


This is a novel about the power of documentary evidence - at the centre of it is a diary of an early colonial administrator, Alfred Corbin - but, just as that diary itself is cut off and left drastically incomplete by the violent circumstances of life, so too is the book itself left with incomplete narratives and unsolved mysteries. The primary mystery of the book, the identity of the biological father of the character Ali, is left for us, and for our narrator Pius Fernandes, to guess. Fernandez, incidentally, sets himself up in the traditional role of historian at the beginning, chronicling the World War I era history of a small border town under the British governance of Assistant District Commissioner Corbin. But by the end, Pius has moved into the middle of his own story, and it has become as much about his gaining understanding of his own life and unfulfilled loves in Dar Es Salaam as about bringing together the threads of his historical investigations. That this transformation occurs with barely a noticeable bump is testament to how well the novel is written.


There are primary characters here I haven't mentioned yet, notably Pipa, whose difficult life, being bumped back and forth between foes (for instance between the British and Germans during WWI, for both of whom he reluctantly performs spying duties) is chronicled at considerable length. I will not spoil this book for future readers by specifying the numerous ways he is utterly central to the narrative. He is the character who comes nearest to spanning the entire chronological range of the book, which begins in 1913 and wraps up in 1988.


As a last twist, our narrator Pius does not publish his history but surrenders it in fragmentary form into the hands of a woman he once loved, who has traded the telling of her own part of the story for the recovered diary and Pius' promise of utter secrecy. So when we read it, we are reading a book of secrets indeed.


Very much recommended; I think this novel could stand several re-readings.