Winner of the 1990 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book, Africa Region
M.G. Vassanji, like Michael Ondaatje and Rohinton Mistry, is one of Canada’s most prolific immigrant writers. Being of Indian descent, born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania, educated in the US, and eventually ending up in Canada, Vassanji has a vast array of cultural influences to draw from. Perhaps being best known as either the inaugural Giller winner or the first two-time Giller winner, he has produced success after success after success. Arguably his most well-known books are his Giller winners The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall but Vassanji has continuously received both critical and popular acclaim. His long list of hit titles began in 1989 with his debut novel The Gunny Sack. This novel deals with the same settings and themes as his later works, but in my opinion, with far less finesse.
The nuts and bolts of this story is that the protagonist, Salim Juma, inherits his great aunt’s gunny sack. In the first few pages while looking through the sack he begins to reminisce about growing up in eastern Africa. We are taken through many generations and many historical events in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, most notably the Mau Mau uprising and Idi Amin’s rise to power. On a fundamental level this book is about how your memory can play an important role in your interpretation of history.
If you have ever studied post-Civil War American literature than you should be very familiar with what the naturalist movement was. If not, basically this was a style used by writers like Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, and Edith Wharton where the story was told as if it the characters where part of a scientific experiment. The story is narrated with the utmost detail with no “editorializing.” This novel is narrated in that style; this makes for a very slow and very dull read. The Gunny Sack is at least 100 pages too long. The narration is given with such minute detail that you lose track of the action of the story frequently. 60 pages into the novel I honestly still had no idea what was going on. Perhaps this is because Vassanji is a physicist by trade.
This novel as well has more characters than a soap opera. Each section of the novel centers around one particular person in the Salim Juma’s life. Right off the bat you are inundated with almost a dozen characters in the immediate family. This is very difficult to keep track of. Part of the difficulty of this novel is the excessive use of the Swahili language. This is a technique that is used in his other novels but to nowhere near the extent of this. There is a glossary at the end of the book but this really gets in the way and the enjoyment of reading.
So,as you can probably guess, I was not a big fan of this book. I was very disappointed as The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is one of my favorite books. This novel reads like an African history text. So in short, read one of Vassanji’s many other great works; if you have a great interest in East African history than The Gunny Sack is for your.