Am reviewing a novel called The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by M G Vassanji. Have finished only the first three chapters but it looks promising -- and it’s elegantly written, minus the often-tiresome wordplay one increasingly gets from Indian writers. (Vassanji incidentally was born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania and now lives in Canada, where he’s reasonably well respected as a writer. Hate to admit it, but his name wasn’t familiar to me before I started on this book.)
The story is set in Kenya -- the narrator, Vikram or Vic, is talking about his childhood at the point where I’ve reached. Playing with his African friend Njoroge and two European children, even as tensions mount between the Mau Mau guerillas and the colonial settlers, with the Indian families (including the narrator’s) caught uneasily in the middle.
There’s something about African literature/novels set in the region...to begin with, it’s such an enigmatic continent, large parts of which are still unknown to most of the rest of the world - this despite the fact that Africa is right there, bloated, enormous, bang in the middle of the conventional flat-map representation of the world. And yet, in so many ways, it’s so immutably cut off from the rest of the world. Planet Earth’s heart of darkness.
I’ve been intrigued on a basic level by everything I’ve read that has to do with the region - and I’ve noticed that much of African literature has a characteristic oppressed, stygian quality. It’s often stifling and hard to read; I can never read J M Coetzee at long stretches for instance. There’s an element of quiet, resigned hopelessness, a sense that things can never really change.
I got a few insights into this last year when I interviewed Damon Galgut, the South African writer whose latest novel The Good Doctor had been shortlisted for the 2003 Booker. Here’s the
profile and here’s the
review I’d written of the book a couple of weeks before meeting him.