Having previously mined his South Asian heritage, East African upbringing, and North American education in historically soaked fiction and non-fiction, M.G. Vassanji turns to the future in his new novel, somewhat ironically titled Nostalgia. On the surface, this slim but meaty volume may read like a departure into genre territrory – Vassanji does speculative fiction! – but the focus on characters searching for their true selves against the backdrop of a world divided between here and there is a holdover from earlier books.
What makes Nostalgia much more than a literary novelist’s crack at the crowded market of work set in a dystopian future awash with impossibly beautiful and ethnically indeterminate youth is a series of philosophical and political questions that will not sound out of place in the present moment, as the world witnesses the ongoing global refugee crisis or that other tragedy, the U.S. presidential election.
Vassanji takes his readers to a future divided between the affluent First World, here dubbed the North Atlantic Alliance, and an amalgam of poor and underdeveloped countries. In the process, he rearranges Earth’s geography such that the U.S., Canada, and Europe all share a common border. In this new world reorder, scientific progress has unlocked the secret to immortality (or at least longevity) through regeneration of both bodies and minds. Humans who can afford it undergo procedures that implant “new memories in new bodies.”
Dr. Frank Sina, the novel’s narrator, specializes in one of the procedure’s side effects: “nostalgia,” or leaked memory syndrome. It seems that the technology hasn’t been perfected yet, and some patients are tormented by random thoughts or dreams from their past lives. Frank develops an obsession with Presley Smith, a patient suffering from this condition. Presley’s “fiction” – as personal histories are called in Vassanji’s imagined world – unfolds alongside the story of Holly Chu, a news reporter who has crossed into the land of Maskinia, a fictional country that is a composite of Third World ills and grievances.
As a piece of speculative fiction, Nostalgia establishes and sustains the internal logic of a world in which the future feels at once far-fetched and recognizable. Always a visual writer, Vassanji is virtually cinematic in his evocation of a dysfunctional, futuristic Toronto that’s only one or two unhinged mayors away from becoming a reality. Speculative fiction may not be native to the author of The Book of Secrets and The Assassin’s Song, but Vassanji wears its Orwellian garb well.
Indeed, it’s as an extended political treatise on the divisions of our world – the young and old, the rich and poor, the migrants and the old stock – that Nostalgia thrills, inspires, and, in its best moments, provokes. The futuristic setting allows Vassanji to explore anxieties about migration, race mixing, and the unequal distribution of wealth with a clinical but compassionate eye. This is not the stuff of Facebook memes or Bernie Sanders commercials: Vassanji takes inequality to its logical, perhaps inevitable extreme, but distills the various factions duking it out into a taut narrative of love and betrayal – at least once you get over the older-man-with-younger-woman trope, which makes two appearances here. (Frank lives with Joanie, a member of the new generation, who loves him but cheats on him, and he seems infatuated with another younger woman.)
Despite the fact that Vassanji has written multiple novels with an autobiographical bent, and explored his own nostalgia for India and Tanzania in two non-fiction titles, this may be his most revealing book to date. It’s an oversimplification (and possibly a taboo) to read novelists into their characters, but Vassanji invites us to see parallels between himself as a sixtysomething successful Canadian author and the aging doctor-narrator of his novel. (The doctor even keeps a journal that imposes a narrative on the unfolding story. Who’s the novelist here?) It’s not possible to reveal how this similarity becomes even further emphasized toward the end without giving away some of the novel’s secrets – Nostalgia doubles as a terrorism thriller – but a sense of the retrospective, the inevitable return to biological roots, binds both creator and creation. Vassanji uses the future to better understand nostalgia, in the traditional sense of longing for a bygone era, which engulfs us as we get older.
As Nostalgia draws to a close that unites the doctor, patient, and missing reporter, the reader realizes that memories of other Vassanji novels have been leaking into this new book. As the titular character in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall and Kamal Punja in The Magic of Saida did before them, characters in Nostalgia forfeit the future in pursuit of their pasts. In other words, the past haunts the future and the future longs for the past. The best Vassanji’s characters can do is live in the interstices of time and space.
Correction: Due to an editorial error, a character was misidentified in the print version of this review. The review has been amended to reflect this. Q&Q apologizes for the error.