M.G. Vassanji’s new novel offers an experience as mysterious and haunting as hearing the sudden beat of drums in the middle of the night. In The Magic of Saida, the drumbeats are first heard in a Tanzanian hospital where Kamal Punja, a Canadian doctor of mixed African-Indian ancestry raves like a lunatic. A book publisher visits him, anticipating a great story. The publisher is right. Kamal does have a great story to tell, a narrative that echoes the best-known African-set tale in the English language: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Kamal has returned to his hometown to find his childhood sweetheart, Saida, once a neophyte magician. The two last saw one another as young adults. Saida had just been forced to marry a much older village magician, and Kamal was about to relocate to Uganda to become a doctor.
A few years later, Kamal and his new fiancée immigrate to Canada to flee growing discrimination. Several decades pass and Kamal’s marriage ends. He feels compelled to reconnect with Saida and to unravel many of the mysteries about his parents – the Indian father he never knew and the African mother who gave him up to allow him a greater chance at an education and a prosperous life.
Kamal’s journey explores Africa’s darkest corners: its colonial heritage, ethnic tensions, and black magic. At times the story seems overly complicated, with too much history and too many twists, turns, and dead ends. Despite such frustrations, the seductive power of Vassanji’s prose mesmerizes. The reader starts to resemble Kamal, who is obsessed with finding Saida regardless of the obstacles. Vassanji feeds that obsession by judiciously dropping ominous hints, foreshadowing a cataclysmic ending in the very heart of darkness.
One of Canada’s best novelists, Vassanji is a two-time winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, once for the unforgettable 2003 novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, also about the problems of East Indians in Africa. Vassanji’s new novel is darker and far more complex than any of his previous books. Joseph Conrad would approve.