An ambitious young man travels far from his homeland, family and a burdensome ancestral obligation in the native Indian (now Canadian) author’s lyrical sixth novel.
Vassanji (a two-time Giller Prize–winner, for The Book of Secrets, 1996, and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, 2004) dramatizes experiences of exile and cultural conflict in parallel narratives set centuries apart, whose similarities are subtly, patiently disclosed. In the 1960s, Karsan Dargawalla grows up into an awareness of the rapidly changing world beyond his West Indian village (Haripir) and a determination to escape the duty toward which his father, a devout Sufi Muslim, has pointed him: their family’s service as “lords” (i.e., priests) of the historic shrine of Pirbaag. In an interpolated story which begins in 1260 A.D., Karsan’s “pilgrimage” (away from holiness) finds its counterpart in the story of Nur Fazal, a wanderer from the north who has survived Mongol oppression, becomes the favorite of an Indian ruler and marries a princess, and subsequently prospers and despairs, in a manner that echoes Karsan’s regrets and sufferings. This richly imagined novel is rendered even more complex by the fragmentation of Karsan’s story into three parts: a childhood dominated by his father’s firm traditionalism; years of intellectual growth, marriage and fatherhood, then of tragic loss in North America; and his disenchanted return to Haripir, following the deaths of his parents and the further loss of his beloved younger brother—to violent Muslim fundamentalism. The novel’s several parts do not satisfactorily cohere, but its slowly gathering power cannot be denied. And Vassanji achieves some spectacular ironic reversals, as the embattled Karsan—one fated, it seems, to keep on learning, however painful the experience—gradually discovers “the secret of the identity of Nur Fazal,” and the significance of the ancient tale in the context of his own demanding, disordered life.
Another fine, though imperfect novel from an intelligent and inventive storyteller.