M.G. Vassanji has long been a favorite writer of mine. I’ve had The Magic of Saida sitting on my shelf for years now – it moved from Canada to Scotland with us – but it just hasn’t been calling to me. In fact, many of his more recent books haven’t hit me the way his earlier works did. So what did i think of The Magic of Saida?
Such a hard question to answer. Kamal Punja, a retired Canadian doctor, returns to Kilwa in Tanzania to find a childhood friend. Through his journey we hear about his childhood as a half African, half Indian child in colonial East Africa. Fascinating. Loved that part and the parts set in the present.
But there are also long digressions told through the story of a poet that left me a little bored. They were interesting in so far as I learned so much about the conflict between England and Germany in colonial Africa and how it affected people on the ground. But also a little dull.
The last 100 pages of the book Vassanji had hit his stride as in his older books and I was loving it. It focused on Kamal as a university student in Uganda and his subsequent immigration to Canada. This was the Vassanji I love. The more historical parts just didn’t work for me.
Who would like this book? I don’t know how well known Vassanji is in different parts of the world, but in Canada he is known as a multiple Giller winner. That speaks to the quality of his writing – literary and often times not so easy. As I’ve hinted at, The Magic of Saida isn’t my favorite of Vassanji’s books, but i’d still recommend it if you are interested in the social history of colonial Tanzania in the 20th century. Reading it was an education. But if you’re looking for an entry point to reading Vassanji, I’d recommend The Book of Secrets or The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. Both are breath-taking.