- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

The most accurate assessment of Vikram Lall, the Indian-Kenyan narrator of M.G. Vassanji’s fifth novel, comes from Lall’s boss in 1970s Nairobi, a corrupt government minister named Paul Nderi. “I wish I were as cold as you are, Vic,” Nderi tells him. “You are quite the Frigidaire aren’t you?” Lall demurs that he only “prefer to keep things under control,” which Nderi counters emphatically: “Yes, you are a cold tilapia.”

Vic’s is not the coldness of a snake; it does not betoken the “monstrous and reptilian cunning” that is later attributed to him throughout East Africa. He is quite simply a cold fish, a man who, beneath an attitude of chilly, scrupulous neutrality, carries a frozen heart.

As he looks back on a childhood in Kenya’s countryside and then its capital, followed by college years in Tanzania’s Dar-es-Salaam, marriage and a career in government and business, what Lall also describes — his narrative voice almost without affect — is a life of wan emotions and moral blankness. Vikram Lall has given himself to no one, affirmed nothing, and in a country plagued by corruption, has failed to pass judgment on anyone among those who have destroyed Kenya’s once-bright promise (himself included).

The first of the novel’s three parts focuses on a single climactic year in Vikram’s early life. With vivid, affectionate brushstrokes, Mr. Vassanji depicts the South Asian community of small-town Nakuru in the early Fifties, when the British still ruled Kenya.

We meet quiet Vikram and his lively, impulsive sister, Deepa, and their parents — Papa an easygoing Anglophile, Mother a proud Indian and devout Hindu. Grandparents Dada and Dadi, Mahesh Uncle, a political radical, and other members of the extended family pile into Vic’s living room for lunch every Sunday, listening to Dada (Grandfather) reminisce about his work as a young “coolie” laying the tracks of the East African Railways.

More important to Vic this year, however, is the multiracial group of friends to which he and Deepa belong. On Saturday mornings, in the parking area in front of the European grocery their father runs, the Lall siblings play with Njoroge, an ethnic Kikuyu boy and the grandson of their family’s gardener, and with Bill and Annie Bruce, whose English mother shops at Mr. Lall’s store. Deepa and Njoroge develop a special bond; Vic has a deep crush on Annie.

It is a colonial idyll that middle-aged Vic, holed up in a mansion on Lake Ontario, lingers over: a bit too long, this reviewer thought, and with lapses into sentimentality (“we could watch the world together with laughter in our eyes”).

Yet the sepia-toned picture is shadowed by violence. Mau Mau guerrillas carry out random, brutal attacks on British and Indian families, slaughtering them in their homes. The police respond with harsh measures, rounding up Kikuyu men en masse and torturing them. When a horrific attack hits close to home, it shatters Vic’s world, becoming the decisive event of his life.

The gruesome details of the attack are shocking. But Vic, it should be noted, doesn’t witness them firsthand, or even learn of them until adulthood. Understandably he is shaken to the core by what has happened; nevertheless, I found it difficult to believe that this event would alter him irrevocably.

And this was not the only time I was troubled by the currents of determinism and reductionism that run through Mr. Vassanji’s novel. Too often, characters are essentialized to one or another of the jumbled cultural identities and social attitudes of transitional Kenya: Mother clings to her Indian heritage. Papa revels in being “British.” Njoroge exhibits the optimism — and later disillusionment — of black Kenyans following independence. Deepa wants to break away from the traditionalism of women in the South Asian community.

Vikram is made to represent the “in-betweenness” of Indians in Kenya, who are looked down on by whites and mistrusted by blacks. Whether passing letters between secret lovers Njoroge and Deepa, or collecting briefcases stuffed with dollars (“donations to our party from well-wishers abroad,” according to Paul Nderi) and stashing the money with Indian shopkeepers, Vic always finds himself in the role of middleman.

As far as Vikram is concerned, the determinism driving the story offers him a chance to justify his actions to himself and the reader. “It would appear that something is wrong with me,” he observes, for making illegal millions as Africa’s plight worsened. “But that is too easy a judgment, surely. I ask, would it have made a difference had I declined the fortuitous role that happened my way?

“Surely there would have been another to fill my place. The game of money requires the presence of someone such as me, the neutral facilitator.” Such cold logic can’t be disputed (no doubt someone else would have taken his place), but his refusal to accept moral responsibility is infuriating.

In another episode, Vic, still in his Canadian seclusion, hosts a visit from Njoroge’s college-age son Joseph. When he says an affectionate goodbye — “you are like a son to me” — Joseph instinctively recoils. He is a fiercely patriotic young Kenyan, and he knows this man’s shameful history.

But all that Joseph’s response awakens in Vic is self-pity. “You should have known better, I chided myself as I closed the door. You are still an Asian.”

Mr. Vassanji must have been striving for irony here; yet since he doesn’t allow himself so much as a whisper of criticism of his narrator, the moment lacks edge. If Vic isn’t a satirical or moral target, he also differs, in subtle but crucial ways, from the tragically self-deluded narrators who inhabit novels by (for example) Kazuo Ishiguro. In contrast to Christopher Banks in Mr. Ishiguro’s haunting “When We Were Orphans” — another novel about individuals caught up in bloody historical events — no intriguing fantasies seem to roil beneath Vic’s dispassionate tone. Without them, his narration verges on tedious.

“The In-Between World of Vikram Lall,” which won Canada’s Giller Prize last year, suffers from having a protagonist who is neither sympathetic nor compellingly wicked, and from its other characters being chained to allegorical purposes. Yet it’s best to look beyond these flaws to the novel’s real focus: beautiful, haunted, contradictory Kenya herself.

In one memorable passage, Mr. Vassanji captures the giddy mood of Nairobi’s young elite in the 1960s, electrified by both Kenyan independence and rock-and-roll. Vic escorts the Beatles-mad daughter of his parents’ friends to a fashion show at an upscale club:

“The fashion show, with displays of A-lines and miniskirts and sack dresses from London, together with the latest sunwear, was ending as we arrived; six African and European models toting toy pistols in bikinis finished the show to the James Bond theme music and much applause.

“Dancing started soon after and the two of us went on the floor and twisted away. There was a new dance in town called the Zulu stomp, and we did that too. The hall was packed, uproarious and humid, with people from all the races of Nairobi present. In that mixed crowd was the mood of happiness and all the hope and excitement, at least for the well-positioned classes, brought on by the rush of independence.”

From the hot, crowded alleyways of coastal Mombasa (“This is India, [Mother] would say gleefully, walking about barefoot”) to the Rift Valley savannah that young Vic gazes at entranced from a train window, Kenya’s varied beauty shines from Mr. Vassanji’s pages. It is her story, more than Vikram Lall’s, that rewards the reader of this book.

THE IN-BETWEEN WORLD OF VIKRAM LALL

By M.G. Vassanji

Knopf, $25, 384 pages

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