The Magic of Saida sometimes treads dangerously close to being a book about immigrant identity. Martin Kigoma, the publisher to whom Kamal tells his story, muses that Kamal “demonstrated how complicated a real life could be in our times, how painful the idea of belonging”.
The young Kamal’s feeling of being torn between the two sides of his heritage, and the disconnect he later feels are all very well but they’re nothing we haven’t seen before. It’s a tired genre. Vassanji’s strength is the vastness of his canvas. Into the histories of Saida and Kamal’s families is woven a wider story of East Africa, its trade ties with India, various anticolonialist movements and other major events of the twentieth century.
There are brilliant shifts in style – including a section in which the relationship between a poet and his brother is transformed into a version of the Cain and Abel story. Yet none of this is enough to make up for the real weaknesses of this book.
Saida herself is something of a MacGuffin; while the search for her supposedly informs the whole plot, the truth is rather anti-climactic. She is relegated to being a mystical plot device. Kamal isn’t much of a character either. Kigoma, the publisher, is mentioned just once, yet he has more personality than the protagonists. Here his only function is to comment on how moving Kamal Punja’s story is.
If only his enthusiasm could convince the reader; this is far from Vassanji’s strongest work.
Aishwarya Subramanian is a writer and critic