on 16 August 2010
Vassanji writes superbly, and does paint vivid pictures on his East African canvas, spanning the twentieth century. Through the stories he tells, the history of the region is glimpsed, in an interesting way. But this is a book also about books, stories and history themselves. Starting and ending with the "Book of Secrets" of the title, a diary kept by a British colonial administrator, the novel weaves its way through the personal and family histories of those linked to this book. There is a rich theme here of secrecy and disclosure, partial knowledge and understanding; some secrets are disclosed, others not. This ties in neatly with themes of literacy and education. The whole novel is an exploration of how full or partial our understanding of history - even our histories - ever is; some of this is discussed more explicitly towards the end of the book.
How well does the exploration of this theme work? I'm not sure, actually. The issue of partial perspective (in both senses of the term - partial = not full, and partial = because of party interest) is raised, and handled in terms of what is lost and unrecorded, and the reliability of what is recorded. However, in the novel what is disclosed or not is actually very much the choice of the narrator, and fianlly for moral/comapssionate reasons, not because it is unknown. The diary does not remain secret or lost, and some sections of it are 'transcribed' - though not those which we and some characters in the novel would most like to read. So the novel becomes a partial history mostly by the choice of the narrator, less because of the partial perspective and knowledge of those looking back through history, or the reliability or otherwise of the remaining record; it is largely the choice of the present narrator not to make some secrets known that keeps history so patchy.
Perhaps this was exactly what the author wanted to explore, but it seemed to me that a larger theme of interest, perspective and knowledge was raised, while what actually happened was down to present authorial choice (both in the novel as Vassanji writes it, and in the disclosure / secrecy chocen by his narrator, Fernandes). Here, the author (both Vassanji and Fernandes) is not the disinterested, impartial, objective third-person narrator of the traditional novel, true. However, these authors tell us much less than they know, so it is the reader even more than the author who becomes the victim of partial story-telling. As I say, perhaps this is exactly what Vassanji wanted to explore, but I was not sure it worked as well as I hoped, as the novel progressed. (So it seemed a little too easy to say, "Look, history is partial because we choose not to tell all, just like me, here, writing this story.")
I have wavered, then, between a 3 or 4 star rating for this book. 4 for the rich, vivid, evocative writing; perhaps 3 because the ending does not bring any real sense of satisfaction (though this is perhaps the point, partly, of course), and for the thematic exploration ... and yet, in making the reader ask about the reasons for the partiality of our histories, Vassanji has surely achieved his purpose at least in part. So he's surely earned his 4 overall! I do recommend the book, with the caveats I've tried to explore here. Rick Simpson